Long time readers may recall the think tank cartoon I posted a while back:
The Heritage Foundation is on the conservative side of this brawl, and I must say that it’s amazing how all of the objective, fact-based research that comes out of these sorts of organizations specifically supports the conservative ideology. (From what I’ve seen, the Brookings Institution isn’t quite as bad on this dimension, but there are certainly liberal think-tank-type organizations that are very ideologically driven.) In my own research, I’ve certainly reached conclusions that I’d rather not see, so I wonder sometimes what happens to all of the “inconvenient” results.
I bring this up because today’s reading does, in fact, come from the Heritage Foundation, and it’s about whether teachers are overpaid. Their answer is, not surprisingly, yes:
The teaching profession is crucial to America’s society and economy, but public-school teachers should receive compensation that is neither higher nor lower than market rates. Do teachers currently receive the proper level of compensation? Standard analytical approaches to this question compare teacher salaries to the salaries of similarly educated and experienced private-sector workers, and then add the value of employer contributions toward fringe benefits. These simple comparisons would indicate that public-school teachers are undercompensated. However, comparing teachers to non-teachers presents special challenges not accounted for in the existing literature.
I will restate the rest of the executive summary for you here:
- Education degrees are easier than other degrees, so they shouldn’t count the same towards wages.
- Teachers are stupider than other professionals (I kid you not) at a level that roughly matches with the lower wages earned by teachers.
- Public-school teachers earn more than private-school teachers, so obviously public-school teachers are overpaid.
- People who switch into teaching see a wage increase, while people who switch out of teaching see a wage decrease, which again suggests that teachers are overpaid.
I will acknowledge that, perhaps because both of my parents are teachers, or perhaps because I saw what my teachers had to put up with, I viscerally just don’t like conclusions that teachers are overpaid. That said, I am a scientist at heart, so a very large part of me just wants to fully understand the issue. So let’s go point by point:
Education degrees are easier than other degrees, so they shouldn’t count the same towards wages. On the surface, this is a pretty reasonable conclusion if the premise holds. There is, in fact, evidence that advanced degrees don’t significantly predict teacher quality, and the Heritage study shows evidence of grade inflation in education programs. I’m not entirely convinced that grade inflation, specifically in the form of a large percentage of people getting A’s, actually means that education programs are actually easier to finish, since I don’t have information on failure rates for education versus other programs. (Maybe the programs are giving lots of A’s and lots of F’s, for example.) I also don’t know how to account for the fact that education degrees are just as expensive as other degrees and many states require graduate study in various forms. If anything, I would like the evidence referenced here to be used to encourage states to rethink their requirements regarding education-specific education.
Teachers are stupider than other professionals at a level that roughly matches with the lower wages earned by teachers. My main issue here is one of consistency. In one paragraph, the Heritage study argued that education in and of itself shouldn’t be rewarded because there is not a clear relationship between level of education and teacher quality. In the next paragraph, on the other hand, the author argues that lower IQs or standardized test scores justify lower wages, despite the fact that no clear relationship between IQ and teacher quality has been established. Believe me, I would love it if one’s wages were primarily determined by IQ, but sadly this is not how the world works.
Public-school teachers earn more than private-school teachers, so obviously public-school teachers are overpaid. One of my professors once told his class that he had the best job in the world because it was the only one where there was an admissions process for his customers. At the non-university level, selective admission is a luxury that private schools have but public schools do not, and this difference casts doubt on the comparability of public and private school jobs. In fairness, the author of the study does mention this caveat in his analysis, but somehow it doesn’t seem to factor into his overall conclusion.
People who switch into teaching see a wage increase, while people who switch out of teaching see a wage decrease, which again suggests that teachers are overpaid. This is a dangerous comparison to make, largely in the same way that the “people who switch to GEICO save an average of $X on their car insurance” are misleading. Specifically, there’s no reason to believe that the people who chose to switch into or out of teaching are equivalent to those who made different choices. In particular, the finding that male teachers don’t experience salary decreases when they leave teaching makes me suspicious of the interpretation of this data, since it leaves open the possibility that women disproportionately leave teaching for less demanding or less time-consuming jobs.
The study then reaches the following conclusion:
We conclude that public-school-teacher salaries are comparable to those paid to similarly skilled private-sector workers, but that more generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year. Teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention. Alternatively, teachers who are more effective at raising student achievement might be hired at comparable cost.
The author of the study mentioned the concept of compensating differentials when discussing private versus public school compensation, but he seems to have forgotten about it entirely by the time he reaches the overall conclusion. Am I the only one who thinks that working with kids all day is kind of exhausting? I may or may not be representative, but I find it hard to believe that the teaching versus office job decision is made under the assumption that public-school teaching and other jobs are equivalent on all dimensions other than money. If teaching were viewed as more pleasant than other jobs requiring similar skill levels, we would expect to see lower wages for teachers, and vice versa. (Didn’t anyone ever explain to you why garbage men make more money than most people would expect?)
Kayla Webley makes an important side point in her analysis of this study:
As Jonathan Chait notes in a piece titled, “You Get the Teachers You Pay For,” the paper doesn’t show that we pay teachers enough, it shows the skill level of teachers is commensurate with their pay level — an important distinction. “Pay teachers badly, and you’ll get a lot of bad teachers,” he writes.
This is a concept that is pretty well-understood in other markets. For example, if I wanted to buy furniture, I could be willing to pay a low price and get IKEA furniture, or I could be willing to pay a high price and get the option of having IKEA furniture or more high-quality furniture. Furthermore, if I were good at examining my furniture before I bought it, I could avoid paying high prices for IKEA-quality furniture. In a similar fashion, school districts are offering a wage and seeing who lines up to try to get the available teaching jobs. If this wage were “too high,” the districts would see more qualified people lining up for teaching jobs than there are jobs available, and if the wage offered were “too low,” the districts would see a shortage of qualified applicants.
Some people like to point out that unions play a large role in keeping wages artificially high. This is likely true in a lot of cases, and these cases are typically accompanied by a whole lot of people competing for comparatively few jobs. Based on what I’ve heard, this surplus of teachers does in fact exist in some districts, but it is certainly not a widespread phenomenon.
In a market economy, the forces of supply and demand determine whether prices are “too high” or “too low.” Isn’t the belief in the power of free markets am, um, conservative value? =P The fact of the matter is that teaching in a public school is, in large part, its own animal, so comparisons of the sort presented in this study are largely pointless. (It’s a little like asking whether the price of corn oil is too high relative to the price of corn syrup- yes, corn can be used for either of these purposes, but if making corn syrup is somehow more or less icky than making corn oil, we shouldn’t expect the prices of the two items to be equal.) Instead, effort would be better put towards determining what the appropriate level of teacher quality is and designing a system that would attract enough of that type of teacher while weeing out their less effective counterparts.