Society and Culture, Education

Response to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers

Over at Education Week, Jason Richwine and I have an article responding to criticisms of our work on teacher pay. We found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, public school teachers receive higher pay than similar private sector workers. Their salaries are about on par but their benefits are a lot more generous. We think the Ed Week article resolves many of the obvious objections to our paper.

Not surprisingly, though, the comments sections is crammed with entries (some reasonable, others kind of nutty). One comment was from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest and most influential teachers’ unions. Here are her comments, followed by my responses.

Weingarten: “If we had a society where thousands of people wanted to become teachers and stay teachers, saying teachers are overpaid would have a scintilla of credibility. However, in the teaching profession, attrition nationwide is through the roof. In New York City, for example, 66,000 teachers have left their jobs since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office. With these losses, our children lose experienced, high-quality teachers.”

Biggs: As we point out in the article, teacher colleges regularly graduate thousands more prospective teachers than can find jobs. Most teaching openings, even prior to the recession, received multiple applicants; in Connecticut in 2007-8, for instance, schools received an average of 15 qualified applicants per opening. Finally, teacher turnover is not appreciably higher than other professions. None of these facts point toward a profession that is deemed undesirable or underpaid.

Weingarten: “The authors believe teacher salaries should be market-based, while we believe teacher salaries should be based on the value our society places on children and their education, and our need to recruit and retain excellent teachers.”

Biggs: It is silly to argue that teacher pay should be set without reference to the market. There are many, many important jobs in society; doctors who cure your illnesses, lawyers who defend you in court, and so on. Pay for practically all of them relies on market pricing. As Ms. Weingarten seems to acknowledge, if we wish to attract and retain teachers, we have to know what the market would pay them in alternate employment. Our paper shows that we’re already paying above-market compensation, meaning that it’s factors other than pay that are preventing school from getting the best teachers.

Weingarten: “Indeed, the 2010 report on closing the talent gap by McKinsey & Co. found that improving compensation and working conditions could dramatically increase the recruitment and retention of top college students in high-needs schools and school districts.”

Biggs: The McKinsey report actually supports our basic finding: it shows that public school teachers are generally recruited from the bottom third of their college graduating class, meaning they’re less qualified than the typical college graduate. So it shouldn’t be surprising if they receive salaries that are somewhat lower than the typical college graduate. That said, it’s not illogical to assume, as McKinsey does, that higher pay would automatically attract better qualified teachers. In most other professions, it would. But our own work shows that we’re already paying for better teachers than we’re getting. The question is, why? Vanderbilt University economist Dale Ballou has shown that public schools often don’t hire the best applicants even when offered. Prospective teachers who graduated from better colleges, had higher GPAs and majored in subjects like math and science rather than education, actually have lower chances of being hired than applicants who took the traditional teacher training route. Ballou and University of Missouri economist Mike Podgursky show that, when schools are indifferent to applicants’ qualifications, raising pay without reforms will do little for teacher quality. A 20 percent salary increase would raise the average SAT score of teachers by only around 2 points. There’s something really screwy with how public schools are managing their workforces and simply raising pay isn’t going to fix it.

Weingarten: “The debate over whether teachers are overpaid is another example of blaming and demeaning teachers, which doesn’t help move us toward improving teaching and learning for all students.”

Biggs: Nowhere have we blamed or belittled teachers; such claims are made to generate emotional responses that distract from the factual arguments we have presented. We have merely shown that today’s teachers are not underpaid relative to what they would earn in the private sector. If we are correct, and to date no one has shown that we are not, this has significant implications for education policy and state/local government budgets.

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