September 8, 2014

Questions On Teacher Gender & Teacher Pay

By Bellwether

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In case you missed it over the weekend, Motoko Rich had an interesting article in The Times on gender and teaching.  Big issue and worth discussing but I wish the article had looked at a few contextual issues – especially because the primary underlying issue here is compensation.

Two caveats: (1) It’s unfair to lay all of this below on Rich, a single article, especially in print, can only do so much. (2) I think the evidence shows that teachers are underpaid, overpaid, and everything in between. Whaaat? You say. What I mean is that teacher compensation is a place averages tell us very little. There is tremendous variance and that’s where the action is in terms of understanding the issue and thinking about policy options. Meanwhile, outstanding teachers everywhere are underpaid and the much smaller number of underperforming counterparts are overpaid and rewarded by an approach to human resources that is largely indifferent to effectiveness.

A few thoughts on the article:

First, there was a bump of men going into teaching during the Vietnam-era (it was a draft-deferred occupation). There has not been a lot of analysis of that trend and its impact on demographics going forward. The article didn’t get into it but it would be great to see more analysis of the effects it had long-term, if any.

Second, Rich raises the issue of respect for the teaching profession. But this is a more complicated issue than just a binary respect/not-respected one that provides an easy talking point. In practice, teachers are well-regarded – an inconvenient fact for those saying no one respects teachers. But that respect has not translated into higher salaries or more professional norms for teaching. This could certainly be wholly or in part a gender issue. But it could be something else, too.

So, third, what about how teachers are paid and how many of them there are? It’s well-established that since the 1970s schools pursued a strategy of hiring more teachers (even relative to changes in student enrollment). A different choice would have been to drive up salaries instead. Fewer teachers means substantially better pay. And education remains one of the few fields where technology hasn’t leveraged some productivity gains (that also could lead to higher pay if deployed in that direction). There is also the the politically-charged issue of what effect the single-salary steps and lanes approach to salary (compensation overwhelmingly based on years taught and courses taken rather than other aspects of contribution to mission) has on overall salary. There is some evidence it depresses it.

Fourth, what about structure of the work?  We pay too little attention to the structure of the school week as well. There is remarkably little innovation in how schools schedule teachers’ time. Not only to allow time for collaboration but also to allow more work – life flexibility, something today’s professional workers want. Is there a gender component there? Possibly when it comes to (increasingly dated among the professional class) perceptions around childcare and work schedules.

And, finally, there is the issue of deferred compensation through defined-beneift pensions. You can’t consider teacher compensation without also looking at that issue and it’s an issue that changes what teacher comp looks like (and also  some interesting wonky issues there around Social Security participation, survivor benefits, and life-expectancy with regard to gender). Rich also falls into the trap of non-annualized salary comparisons, which depresses what teachers appear to earn because comparing 10 months to 12 months skews the result. But that’s just one way that apples to apples discussions of compensation tend to elude what’s a very value-laden issue.

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