Teaching Catch-22

Commenter "Matt" wrote a comment that pissed me off, and while it's probably futile to take on union-bashing again, it does highlight a couple of the things that make this so frustrating.

In response to several people observing that teaching is not the cushy 8-to-3, summers-off job that lots of people claim, he writes:

Here are the facts. Teachers do not "have" to work harder than the rest of us. They do not "have" to deal with different or unique problems. Granted, some choose to work hard and some choose to deal with parents, misbehaving kids, etc. But people the world over in all jobs have the same basic issues.

It's true. Teachers don't have to spend hours outside the classroom doing lesson plans, grading papers, reading books, attending workshops on new strategies and the like. It's perfectly possible to do the bare minimum required of the job, and no more.

We have a term for teachers who do that: they're called bad teachers. You know, the ones who are supposedly only there because they're protected by the feather-bedding unions that Matt cites as the source of all evil.

He continues:

The difference is that in most jobs if you do additional work or do your work well you can be rewarded with promotions and most often with additional compensation. As a teacher what do you get? The basic way a teacher can earn additional money is if they "survive" another year.

It is the fault of the teacher's union that this is reality.

So, if we remove the top of the pay scale we should also be able to remove the bottom. Basic econ. risk/reward. You want more money? Great, I want to pay you more but I can't because YOUR union says that a 15 year burn out is more valuable then someone that graduated at the top of their class.

You know, I would have some sympathy for this position, had I ever seen any credible evidence that school administrators and politicians wanted to pay teachers more. I'll admit to bias on this-- my father was a union official for many years-- but I have never seen the slightest hint of a real committment to paying good teachers more. I've seen years of crocodile tears like those Matt is shedding here-- "We'd love to pay you more, but there are all these burnouts on the payroll"-- but nobody willing to ante up.

This is a brilliant Catch-22 situation. Union opponents wring their hands and piously intone that they would love to pay more, but they just can't unless teachers give up the union protections and hard-won benefits that are the only thing making the low salaries and lack of respect halfway tolerable.

You could probably get teachers to give up their unions-- it would be a terrible idea on their part, but people aren't good at long-term rationality-- but you would need to pony up a pretty damn good concrete offer. We're talking serious money-- if you wanted me to give up tenure, you'd need to double my salary before I'd even think about it-- and some big changes in institutional support.

"We'd pay you more if we could just fire the deadwood" doesn't cut it without some serious budget increases. You can't just fire old teachers without hiring replacements, and even though burnouts with seniority make more than new hires, that's not going to be a significant enough increase to do any good.

(Toy model time: Imagine nine bright-eyed young teachers, each making $20,000, and one burnt-out old teacher making $40,000. Fire the old guy, hire a new teacher to replace him, and divide the savings among the rest of the faculty, and they're now paid a whopping $22,000. That's not enough of an increase to get anybody to give up tenure.)

The idea that simply being able to fire bad teachers will make everything better is the worst sort of magical thinking. It sounds great in a speech, but it doesn't hold up on the back of an envelope, let alone the bottom line of a contract.

Fixing the problems of teacher compensation will require real money. In the absence of any hint of a committment to providing the necessary resources, teachers would be absolutely insane to think about sacrificing their union benefits.

More like this

Yeah, it is pretty serious money.
There are, very roughly, about 2.5 million K-12 teachers in the US. If you gave each of them a $10,000 pay increase, per year, it'd be $25 billion per year.
Doubling their salary would cost order $100 billion, year after year.

I've heard that $100 billion per year figure somewhere before.
Oh, and todays headline is that health care costs in the US have hit $2 trillion.
The administrative overhead on health care in the US is large, if admin costs were 10% lower, as a fraction of all costs, not current admin costs, which we know can be done, by construction, that'd release $200 billion. Each year.

Would giving teachers $10K more per year really have any significant effect? Actually would abandoning unions and firing "incompetents" really have any effect? I think those are both wishful thinking. What outcomes for students do we as a society want different, and how could changing teachers behavior affect that? If we look at American society as a whole I think most of the people reading Science Blogs would be horrified at what "society" at large would want to change.

An extra $10k per year would have little effect. But suggest to the Feds or States that they should come up with an extra $25 billion, just to improve teacher pay.
Doubling the salaries - the $100 billion move - that would make a difference.

As a guy who's family has a considerable history of public service, it is my observation that the nature of local school boards, is they are made up of lay people with limited resources. When a union turns its fire against these folk they are ill equipped to deal with actions that would be but a fly speck if thrown against business interests. Very often burn out teachers fall back into union leadership positions, and fight reform tooth and nail. Public education is far too important to give over to the industrial model of labor relations.

Steinn: Well, if the US used a sensible or civilised health care system, you'd pay the same as the first-world countries (or, half of what you're paying now) and et the same care as in a first-world country (which is to say, significantly better than what you get now).

Which frees up a trillion dollars a year.

Letting you double the salaries of every public teacher in the nation AND STILL have another $900 billion to spend.