Society and Culture, Education

Teachers Earn Less for a Reason

Mark Perry posts regarding the new AEI Education Outlook by University of Missouri economist Cory Koedel which shows Education to be by far the easiest course of study in most colleges. Mark finds additional evidence from Cornell University to back up Koedel’s claim. Education majors enter college with lower SAT scores than students majoring in other fields but leave college with higher GPAs. Unless something truly magical happens in education schools, we can only conclude that Education is simply a less demanding course of study. As Koedel points out, this lack of rigor undermines rewards to students who work harder, makes it more difficult for schools to distinguish good teaching candidates from poor ones, and may contribute to a professional culture that cares little about standards of quality.

But, as a forthcoming paper that I have co-authored with Jason Richwine will show, the low standards applied in education degrees also complicate the task of determining whether public school teachers are fairly paid. Teachers claim to be underpaid because they receive lower average salaries than private sector workers with similar levels of education. (Our paper shows that, even if this is true, they more than make up the gap through generous benefits, but we’ll ignore that for now.) But note that the control variable here is the level of education — meaning, Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and so on — and not the quality of education nor, more importantly, the ability or productivity of the worker.

In most public-private pay comparisons we can use the level of educational attainment as a proxy for individual ability (For instance, see our paper on federal pay). This isn’t because every college major has the same level of difficulty or that every college provides the same quality of education. It’s because a large number of different college majors are distributed across a large number of different occupations, so given an adequate sample size the inadequacies of education as a proxy for productivity wash out. The fit of the estimate isn’t as tight as if you had some better measure of employees’ ability (meaning, in stat-speak, that the R-squared value of the regression isn’t as high) but the results aren’t biased in one direction or the other.

But when examining teacher pay the problems with educational level don’t wash out: most teachers have degrees in education and most people with degrees in education work as teachers, so if an education degree signals lower ability or a less rigorous education — and Koedel’s paper and other sources indicate that’s the case — then regressions using education as a control variable may falsely show public school teachers to be underpaid.

Put bluntly, public school teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores, major in the easiest undergraduate course of study, take Master’s degrees in education that have no appreciable impact on teaching quality, and then wonder why they’re not as well paid as someone who got a Master’s in chemical engineering. They shouldn’t.

8 thoughts on “Teachers Earn Less for a Reason

  1. Starting with the realization that what we love to call our educational system is really just a variant on a factory system, teachers are just factory workers. In the ‘educational factory’, we bring in raw material (students); shepherd them from classroom to classroom for 50 minutes of exposure to presumably new ideas; and then after several processing steps, usher them out the door at the end of the day. Tomorrow, the factory whistle (school bell) will blow again at the same time and the process starts over. The teachers do the same thing, year after year, and like their real factory counterparts, join unions to get the pay raises they can’t justify any other way. Whether the students learn anything is somewhat immaterial. The system never changes whether it works or not.
    Educational attainment is a horrible way to rate teachers. If being smart were the key, we would just hire people who did well on tests. What we need are people who can teach – much harder than getting smart – and more difficult to measure. What other profession could see the quality of its output decline, and still claim to be the victim?

  2. … we can only conclude that Education is simply a less demanding course of study.

    This may sound rude but is not so intended: well, … duh? I recall my elder sisters in the 1960′s complaining bitterly about the lack of rigor in their Ed courses — both went on to be fine teachers, by the way. What you have proven is something most college kids have inferred over several generations.

    What bugged my sisters the most is the fact this lack of rigor and, frankly, maturity meant the future of education was poor. Poor teaching means poor education. As we see clearly now.

  3. This is well known within the university community, and leads to rather heated discussions over the allocation of resources, with the Education faculty demanding pay equal to what is paid to physics or accounting professors. More than twenty-five years ago I remember the comment made by the dean of the graduate school I was attending when he was told that one of the newly enrolled MBA students had a doctorate degree. He asked, “Is it a real Ph.D. or is it in education?”

  4. I taught with good humor and enthusiasm for years, but I had to “hide” my strong academic background all those years. (I do not believe that SAT/GRE is the only measure of intelligence or academic aptitude, but my scores of 780/740/740 were well beyond most teachers, and my work ethic was also something I had to hide.)

    That said, I have seen good results from academically average teachers in private schools, ONLY because the private schools were better at getting students to work, and in providing a place for good teachers, but bad “order keepers,” to operate.

    American students do not work hard enough, and mastery is not required before students advance, leaving the next teacher, with under-prepared students, under the pressure of “student success” doctrines that force teachers to “pass along” the under-prepared student to the next charade. Thus, the system operates much like the Wizard of Oz — e.g., we expect the unearned diploma to have some transformational effect.

    Pressure on teachers is silly. The pressure needs to be on the students to work, and on the teachers to have well-designed lessons such that student-labor becomes developmental learning.

    The great failure of all “educational reforms” is that they do not focus on student labor. Learning is work. No one expects an athlete to do without “drills” (e.g., “lay-ins” and passing drills in basketball) and yet somehow the entire “attack on memory” that began in the 1950′s and 1960′s in education has de-legitimated the necessary memorization of foundational facts in all disciplines.

    Concept-building and theory-building requires some memorization of foundational facts, memorization of concepts that incorporate those foundational facts, and then some “drills” in applying the fundamental concepts until the students are fluent in the concepts before more advanced knowledge can build upon those preceding concepts.

    Instead, American education is like the old joke Soviet workers are alleged to have made: We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

    In any event, I now work in law (but go back to teaching from time to time), but educational reform remains a passion of mine. But I do not see how to get from “here” to “there” while the right-wing blames teachers and teachers blame the lack of funding, and (more accurately) the social background of students.



    If we start to pay for LEARNING, we will get LEARNING, but we cannot get learning without getting control of students so that they work.

    As a final comment (and I ask your pardon for the haste of this post): Grading and teaching MUST BE SEPARATED. The teacher needs to be the COACH and not the “Basket” (grade and credit).

    Final cumulative tests at the end of each semester should be pooled and anonymously graded, across schools and even across districts, so that the “social pressure to pass” students is minimized. The normal teachers can do the grading, but the tests need to be closed-book (essay) applications of the internalized knowledge, and teachers need to be “wheedle-free” while grading the tests.

    If we focus on student labor, on mastery before advancement, and separate teaching from grading, we can have real reform.

  5. Any generalization has exceptions. Unfortunately, the PUBLIC education system refuses to permit merit in its pay system. This refusal begins in college where “everyone gets a trophy”, or an “A” grade.
    “If only” the system were more competitive, poor teachers would fall away and better teachers would be rewarded. Teacher unions want the ice cream before the broccoli.
    I’m a teacher. I’ve worked with mediocrity. I’ve worked with genius. Some CANNOT be eliminated because there are no replacements.
    Whatever the solution, children deserve better.

  6. Oh, Bother! The real reason teachers are paid less than, say, NFL players, engineers, doctors and entertainers has less to do with the author’s silly reasoning than simple numbers: Teachers are so numerous that if any state tried to match those pay levels, it would go bankrupt. How many starting jobs in the NBA? Less than 100. Schoolteachers number in the millions. QED.
    The second reason is that teachers, like all tax-paid employees, are public servants. And no one should expect Top Executive salaries for line public servant work. Period.

  7. I have to agree with SgtDad. I taught a basic computer class while in grad school. This was the C.S. Dept gravy train. The Education school sent us about 1,000 students a year. We sent them back with mostly A’s and B’s. I usually avoid sweeping generalizations out of respect for the few outliers, but they were dumb as bricks. My sincere apologies to any bricks that bring something special to their jobs.

  8. I was a teacher for 20 years and attest that the qualities most admin want is a steadfast conformity and love for order. As for Don Reid’s assertion that it is like a factory. I agree. As a matter of fact, it underlines why the system is imploding: the raw materials that are brought to it are worse than ever. This is something the teacher has little control over. Maybe if one looked at all the pot bellied 10 year olds running around, they might blame it on the degradation of teaching by coaches and PE teachers. Hopefully, few do that as they recognize that the choices these kids and their parents make impact physical fitness. The same may be said for what’s inside the heads of these children. They are “fat” on the inside as well because they live in a climate which is antiintellectual and effete. Their reading teachers have just so much control over that.

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