Recently, I made same comment to my fellow Scrogues and got some, ummm, disagreement.
They then trotted out arguments about it being teachers that are entrusted with our most precious resource, our children, that the value they provide is incalculable, that it was kindly Miss McCutcheon in second grade that germinated my love of poetry with her passionate reading of Dr. Seuss. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Blah blah, woof woof.”
The value argument is absurd on its face. First of all, relatively few professions are remunerated on value—perhaps professional athletes, some entertainers, commission-based salesmen, and arguably CEO’s whose pay package is tied to stock options. The reason is that to pay someone based on value creation, it’s first necessary that it be possible to calculate value. Sorry, but that’s how it works.
Calculating the value of instruction to hundreds of children that will pay off at some undetermined point in the future is simply impossible. It would require an ability to estimate what value each child will provide to society over his or her lifetime, what that value would have been without the contribution of each particular teacher absent the effects of parents, friends, and other teachers, and the ability to discount that back to the present. Even were it possible, I suspect most teachers would be wary about signing up for that pay program, because they wouldn’t want to see their annual bonus docked because Little Johnny will grow up to be meth dealer in twelve years.
Come on, folks, everybody thinks they’re paid under their true value, from CEO’s that make fifty mil a year (really, I know a couple) to garbage collectors.
Now that we’ve dismissed that silly value argument and made poor Miss McCutcheon cry, let’s talk about how most jobs are really remunerated, supply and demand. Teachers don’t like it that they are paid according to the laws of economics. Welcome to the club. People love economics when it comes out in their favor, and hate it when it doesn’t. The same folks who go to WalMart are the ones who see their jobs being outsourced. Wall Street tycoons who piously talk about the free market are the first to grovel and beg for government hand-outs when things go south. People don’t like economics because the market is ruthlessly rational. It may not be fair, but it’s rational.
It’s a bit like global warming. It doesn’t matter if you believe in it or not, it’s still getting warmer. It doesn’t matter if you believe in supply and demand or not, that’s still the way most of the world, including labor markets, works. Even centrally planned economies are subject to the laws of supply and demand—that’s why gray markets exist.
Now labor markets aren’t completely pure for a variety of reasons—unions, restrictions on immigration, Hay systems, licensing boards, racism, etc, etc. but for all intents and purposes we can think of the job market facing an average person entering the job market as being subject to the laws of economics, specifically supply and demand.
The way that works is this. The demand for how many of each profession is determined by the economy. For example, in the U.S., we have jobs for 8,374,910 educators, trainers and librarians. We have jobs for 641,020 lawyers, 3,456,000 computer scientists, and 61,140 tax preparers. These are the number of current people in those jobs at current wages. (The math gets very complicated very fast, and this simplified version is close enough.)
The wages for each profession is determined by how much the economy needs to pay to get a supply of 641,020 qualified people to be lawyers. For example, 641,020 people are able and willing to be lawyers. For $130,880, they will undergo the years of training necessary, face the uncertainty of the profession, and do boring work.
People are willing to work as social workers for $44,200 per year and as teachers for $51,120. People will be sales reps for $68,580 and computer programmers for $80,200. If nobody is willing to be a social worker and the economy needs more, it will raise the wages until it gets the number it needs. If it needs fewer, it will lower the wages until some leave the profession and go do other jobs.
So why don’t teachers get paid more? Simply put, because 8,374,910 people, exactly what the economy needs, are willing to do it for $51,120 each. Could we as a society decide to pay them $60,000 each? Of course we could, but why would we? It’s a bit like if a washing machine repairman fixed your dryer for $200, but because dry clothes are important to you, you insisted on giving him or her $500. And the same for the grocer, doctor, hair dresser, etc. Would any rational person do that? Of course not. Remember, at the end of the day, teacher salaries don’t come from some magical pot of money in the sky, but from people’s taxes, and most people don’t want to pay any more than they have to.
The real question is why so many people are willing to be teachers for $51,120. I admit, I don’t get it. I tried a little college teaching and hated it. Yes, it has low barriers to entry, the hours are good, it has a certain shabby chic status and job security, but it’s tedious, you spend your time around unhappy peers who bitch all the time, and you don’t make any money. I went into business, which had no job security, but paid well and was interesting. Still some people find teaching a desirable job, 8,374,910 to be exact, and as long as they do and are willing to do it for $51,120, then that’s what they’ll get paid.
They’re not alone. As a rule, jobs that people want to do (teacher, writer, pastry chef, antiques store owner, diving instructor) always pay less than jobs people don’t want to do (tax preparer, salesperson, etc.) It’s not necessary that teachers like their work (although I think they do. Two of the people who weighed in have told me they love teaching.) It means that as long as they like it better than their alternatives, they will be willing to work for less to do it.
When I made this point, my fellow Scrogues stopped hurling insults and picked up stones. One comment was especially interesting. A teacher explained why she taught instead of other professions. She said
I REALLY hated the 2 months I worked in higher ed tech sales after the company I worked for shut the training department I led. Cold-calling made me feel unclean. I was lucky they didn’t cut my salary for those 2 months from what I had been making as head of training to commission only.
Exactly. That’s exactly my point. And as long as people like to teach, or at least like it more than they like selling, sales reps will always make $68,580 and teachers will always make $51,120.
Don’t get pissed at me. Go throw eggs at the home of an economics professor.
P.S. What could dedicated, competent, passionate teachers do to raise their wages? It’s simple really. De-unionize and embrace standardized testing. That would create a market between various school systems for the best teachers, and while average wages might stay the same, you’d see wages shoot up for the best. Indeed, top suburban school systems already pay more than their rural and inner city counterparts, but it’s still within a relatively narrow band. If teachers could prove their abilities, e.g., with their students test scores before and after they got them, then they’d get paid. But I haven’t heard any teachers arguing for this.
Next post: Message to Adjuncts: Administrators aren’t the enemy, tenured professors are.