Friday, November 11, 2011

Teacher Pay

Teacher pay is much discussed these days.  The conversation centers either on the merits of merit pay or the level of pay.  Last week the American Enterprise Institute released a report weighing in on the issue, and argued that public school teachers are not underpaid.  (Full text here.)

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded, saying the study was insulting to teachers.

I was struck by a couple of things.

First, the AEI claims are based on the comparison of teacher salaries with non-teachers who scored similarly on various tests to measure skill/knowledge/competency/whatever (GRE, and the like).

Average teacher scores on those tests aren't all that great.  And it turns out that teachers make more than their test score neighbors.  I'm more interested in a connection between teacher test scores and the achievement gap.   In all the furor about teachers and achievement gap (in the school board campaign), I noticed a somewhat overlooked detail in one of the reports that the 'get rid of bad teachers' camp relies on.  Teachers with higher skills (math, verbal and content area) do better in closing the achievement gap. I saw it expressed even stronger than in this document, but I can't find the original source.

So, we could pre-test teachers for skill level.  We do so now, it's just that the tests aren't that rigorous.  Maybe, just maybe, higher pay would allow us to demand that teachers be "smarter."

Second, what if we use a different aspect of market analysis?  What if we asked about the marginal value of education?  If we start with the data that show a bachelors degree is worth over a million dollars in extra lifetime earnings (over a high school graduate) and start calculating the marginal contribution that each year (and each teacher) makes to that, then we'd see that teachers are radically undervalued.  When I was teaching full-time at university, I had about 100 students a year, and each of them took about 3% of their coursework from me.  So, my class was 'worth' $30,000 of their extra future lifetime.  Give me credit for only 1/30th of that, so $1000, and my marginal contribution to those students' future wealth was $100,000 (each year).  For the record, I was getting paid much less than that.

The numbers would be different for earlier grades, but the idea is the same.

My point isn't that teachers are underpaid--I don't know that they are.  My point is that you can do fascinating things with numbers, if you try.

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