Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Teachers, Pay and the Labor Market

Last week, Kevin Carey of the Quick and The Ed, had a number of posts and a running debate with Ed at the AFT Blog regarding teacher pay. In one post, Carey acknowledges some key arguments made by teachers:
There's an active argument going on about whether teachers are or aren't underpaid, involving lots of dueling statistics about benefit levels as a percent of salary, the number of hours worked in and out of school, which professions are fairly comparable to teaching, and whether or not a 9-month job with no vacation is really just 3/4ths of a 12-month job with vacation. But I don't think it's actually all that relevant to this discussion. I'm perfectly willing to concede that given stakes involved, and the amount of training, experience, and hard work required to do a good job teaching, public school teachers aren't paid enough, by a significant margin. And it's abundantly clear that individual teachers haven't proportionately shared in the overall growth of the economy over the last 30-plus years, in terms of salary.
In another post, Carey writes:
While we're on the subject of how teacher pay compares to other professions, another issue that often comes up in the debate is the fact that many teachers nominally work less than an eight-hour day, since the average school day is about 6.7 hours long. The usual rejoinder from the teacher perspective is that good teachers put a lot of time in before and after the school day, which is certainly true. The response to that is that lawyers and accountants and other professionals also do their share of work on nights and weekends. Then both sides start snarling at each other.


Spend some time in the classroom of a good teacher, by contrast, and you'll quickly notice that they're working the whole time. Not most of the time, but all of it. That's what it takes to succeed; you have to be constantly paying attention, planning, reacting, making decisions, keeping the whole intricate complex process on track. Somehow this needs to be taken into account in discussions of how much teachers work.
Now I would quibble, at least as far as my profession goes, I have to not only work 8-plus hours a day, I am expected to bill as much of that as possible, not only so that I get paid, but that the paralegals, secretaries and file clerks get paid as well. But that is a lesson in law firm economics for another time. I will stipulate that teachers are working a full 6.7 hours non-stop with meager minutes of break time.

The National Education Association has recently issued a call for a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers,
No one who dedicates a life to driving, nourishing, counseling, or teaching our nation’s students should be forced to live at or below the poverty line. But all too often, teachers and ESPs who choose a life of public service must trade away their right to a decent standard of living.

NEA is fighting to change that with a nationwide salary campaign to win a $40,000 starting salary for all teachers, an appropriate living wage for all education support professionals, and appropriate professional pay for higher education faculty and staff.
While one could argue that the $40,000 figure is grossly overpaying for some regions and grossly underpaying for others, what is rarely mentioned is the fact that teachers, as workers, are subject to market forces when it comes to their salary, or rather would be if the NEA and local unions would quit interfering.

As Carey noted, there is little dispute that teachers are underpaid and that the public generally acknowledges that underpayment. Of course, people quibble (as I have) about whether greater pay should be conferred or not based on all factors that Carey mentions. But the biggest impediment to teacher's getting more pay is that fact that teacher's unions, by seeking (and getting) certain changes in schools, classrooms and benefits, actually skew the pay market in ways that harm individual teachers to the benefit of the union itself.

A minimum salary of $40,000 is a minimum wage. Just like any other minimum wage there are economic consequences to that minimum wage. One of the primary consequences is that a minimum wage skews the supply and demand for a particular type of labor, whether it is unskilled labor, or professional labor as a teacher. It is no secret that most teachers start with a salary of less than $40,000. Establishing a minimum salary will no doubt entice more, potentially better qualified, teachers to the profession--a good thing. But an increased base salary will also incentivize others who might other wise leave the profession to stay. You get an increased pool of teachers.

A superintendent's dream right? Well not so fast. As I said, the minimum salary skews the labor pool, now we have more teachers and need more money to pay them but money is a scarce commodity and now some tough choices will have to be made--like, do we cut teacher benefits (sure to cause a howl at the union offices), do we cut extra services for students (won't be particularly popular with parents), do we require more time from the teachers via longer class days, do we halt school construction/modernization or repairs, etc. In short, just raising the minimum salary puts a great deal of pressure on already squeezed school budgets and will no doubt increase demands among the public, who will rightfully demand a little more accountability out of their teachers that they are now paying more for.

But what is also lacking in the whole debate about teacher salaries is how union tactics to this point are to blame for the skewed salary scales. In an effort to protect teachers, unions have forced some pretty rigid pay scales on the school districts. These scales remove the incentives for teachers to do better and thus earn more money, in place they are urged to just do their time and then get rewarded for longevity rather skill or ingenuity as a teacher. The hard scales also increase the power of the union at the expense of the average teacher, because the only way a teacher can get more pay is to put in more time, get an advanced degree or wait for the union to negotiate a higher pay scale (which it seems odd that the unions are unable to do with any regular success).

Second, starting about a decade ago (maybe longer), the NEA and other unions began pushing for a lower student/teacher ratio. This meant that schools had to hire more teachers to get the student/teacher ratio down. This provided more teachers, for which the school system had only so much money for salary and benefits. Since the unions tend to be inflexible about benefits, salaries, while not necessarily cut, certainly have not increased as much.

Now the NEA wants a minimum salary, but you can't have a mandated student/teacher ratio and a minimum salary without some big concession on the unions' part. There are three concessions that I would demand were I negotiating this deal. I will give the unions a mandated student/teacher ratio and a minimum salary, but only with these concessions:

1. Principals at the schools will have full hiring and firing authority over teachers for the first five years of teacher employment. There will be one appeal to a Superintendent designated Board, and one final appeal to the school board (and the teacher is on unpaid leave) So long as the firing doesn't violate other laws, there is no judicial recourse. After five years of employment, a teacher can be suspended at half pay or placed on administrative duty (at full pay and the discretion of the Superintendent) while a hearing on their dismissal is held. But that hearing and one appeal to the school board is their only recourse. Gone are the days of long drawn out grievance procedures. Poor teachers or misbehaving teachers can and should be fired with a lot more ease than you see now.

2. The NEA and the unions have to withdraw and refrain from any and all objections to any rational scheme of merit pay proposed, to include any rational scheme of teacher evaluation. No, I don't want to see teachers evaluated solely on test scores, but you can be assured that test scores will be a significant factor in that evaluation. Simply put, if the NEA wants a minimum wage, the schools get to determine evaluation and merit pay.

3. The school board and the principals of the schools get to determine how much a teacher will be paid. Excellent teachers get more money, poorer teachers get less. Again, this would have to be based on a rational methodology of review, but the schools have to have the power to reward excellence and punish incompetence and not reward mediocrity.

Undoubtedly, these kinds of demands by the school boards will not be met favorably by the unions. But if you really want a minimum wage, you have to realize that it must come with a price.

The NEA and other unions need also to realize that their policy desires have radically skewed the teacher labor market. Once they come, publicly, to that realization, then and only then can we really talk about improving teacher compensation.


Anonymous said...

Professionals can "demand" higher pay because they have honed difficult to acquire skills that society requires or desires. They are leveraging their skills for as much money as we are willing to pay for them.

Teachers and their union can only whine because they know they don't have any real leverage to "demand" higher pay since it isn't particulary difficult to get warm bodies in classrooms. And without the ability to judge teachers or to single out difficult subjects or difficult schools, etc, teachers are without any sort of measurement by which to use as leverage for more pay for better performance.


Miller Smith said...

Every9one is looking at this issue in the wrong way. We do not try and get the pay that other professions similar to ours, we find the pay that gets the teachers we need.

For example, in my school district of Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, we have hundreds of science positions that are being filled with perm subs. There are NO certified or otherwise qualified applicants. None! This means that wer are not attractive enough to even get what we need to fill out an application.

Here is what we do-we raise the pay until we have a minimum pool of applicants to pull from when a vacancy occurs. That way we have what we need when we need it.

The county over th hill from us, Montgomery County, MD, has all the applicants it can handle. They never have to fill a position with a perm sub.

Anonymous said...


I agree about raising the pay for science teachers. Why not link all teaching positions with the number of qualified people available and salary? But I doubt this will happen. Public education has acquired the belief that it is outside market forces and that teachers are a moral good that can't be easily judged. Hence, we get equal pay for all teachers, regardless of equal skill, knowledge, effort, or need.