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Guest Blogger Sean Corcoran: The Teaching Penalty

Sean Corcoran is an economist who teaches at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU. He is a co-author (with Sylvia Allegretto and Larry Mishel) of The Teaching Penalty, a report released today by the Economic Policy Institute.

“I don’t see why a good teacher should be paid less money than a bad senator . . . It is unconscionable that the average salary of a lawyer is $79,000 a year and the average salary of a teacher is $39,000 a year.”
- John McCain, Republican debate at Dartmouth College, October 29, 1999

“We are going to have to take the teaching profession seriously. This means paying teachers what they are worth. There is no reason why an experienced, highly qualified teacher shouldn't earn $100,000.”
- Barack Obama, from The Audacity of Hope

A charter school in New York City recently announced that it will pay its teachers a base salary of $125,000, with opportunities for extra pay when the school performs well. This announcement may come as a surprise to charter supporters who believe that charter schools are capable of doing much more with less, but the school’s founder Zeke Vanderhoek may be on to something.

A large and growing body of research has demonstrated that teacher quality is one of the most (if not the most) important resources schools contribute to the academic success of their students. At the same time, the average quality of teachers has steadily fallen over time, and an increasingly smaller fraction of the most cognitively skilled graduates are choosing to teach (for more on this see here).

Vanderhoek believes that significantly higher salaries will bring these top graduates back to the classroom, and he may be right. Economists have linked this steady decline in teacher quality since 1960 to the rise in career opportunities for women and the sizable gap between teacher salaries and those of other professionals.

Sylvia Allegretto, Lawrence Mishel, and I offer an in-depth analysis of this teacher pay gap in a new book to be released today by the Economic Policy Institute. (This book is in part an update of our 2004 analysis). The results are discouraging. In 2006, public school teachers earned 15% less per week than similar workers, a gap roughly one percentage point larger than in 2003. Only ten years before, the weekly pay difference between teachers and non-teachers was a mere 4.3%. But the 1990s economic boom largely left teachers behind, as average earnings growth for college graduates far surpassed that of teachers. (Average earnings plateaued after 2000, but the relative pay of teachers never recovered).

The recent slip in relative teacher pay is only a small part of a much longer decline in the attractiveness of teaching. Using Census data on teachers and other professionals, we find that the annual teacher pay differential has grown from parity (or a 14.7 percent pay premium for female teachers) in 1960 to a 20 percentage point gap in 2000 (or almost 30 percent gap for female teachers).

Our analysis is sure to bring out the usual “teachers have it easy” chorus, which claims that teachers’ supposed light work schedule and “summers off” adequately compensate them for their lower annual salaries. (See this report by the Manhattan Institute, for example, which argues that teachers are one of the highest paid professions). In our book, we take a closer look at these arguments and find they are mostly overblown. Either way, policymakers interested in raising the quality of the teacher workforce should be much more concerned about the big picture than petty quibbles over the number of hours teachers work each week or each year.

The fact is, college graduates weigh the relative attractiveness of each profession when deciding which line of work to pursue. And I’ve seen little evidence to suggest that our most highly skilled graduates are interested in part-year employment that pays low salaries and the opportunity to vacation or work at Sears during the summer. Vanderhoek recognizes that teaching is a profession that must compete with many others for top talent, and that the traditional compensation package has little to no chance of winning that talent over. His experiment is unlikely to change the face of the teaching profession overnight, but I think it’s a big step in the right direction.

I've read Corcoran's earlier writings on teacher pay, and they're persuasive, especially when juxtaposed with the Manhattan Institute arguments. But I'm a little leery of heaping too much praise on the TEP charter school, which hasn't opened yet, and therefore has no track record to speak of. This is a charter school that will be situated in Washington Heights in NYC -- an overwhelmingly Dominican neighborhood with a high concentration of Spanish-speaking English Language Learners -- and the only language other than English to be taught is Latin. I guess my point is that there's a lot more to running a successful school that can be "scaled up" than recruiting talented teachers by paying them well; the effects of teacher recruitment, training and compensation on student outcomes will be confounded with who chooses to enroll in the school and how the school actually works -- all to be observed in a couple of years.

The last paragraph starts to get at what always bugs me about economists' analyses of teacher pay. Shouldn't the main concern for an economist be whether the pay/benefits are high enough for schools to attract and retain good teachers? In a purely economic sense, does it really matter how much teachers are paid compared to other professions?

skoolboy - Agreed on suspending judgement on this charter. I think Corcoran would argue that teacher quality is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for creating a successful school.

Corey - Welcome aboard! I really like your new blog. I'm not sure I understand your question (so let me know if I've missed your point). Are you saying that potential teachers focus on attaining a particular income threshold (i.e. above $X, the decision to choose teaching versus nursing is based on non-pecuniary factors)? If we assume that teaching is competing with other professions for top graduates (my opinion), then relative pay matters.

Eduwonkette - thanks

No, let me explain again (sorry, sometimes I embrace brevity at the cost of clarity), what I'm saying is this:

Shouldn't the determination of whether teachers are paid fairly or not (at least to an economist) be whether the pay and other benefits are good enough to attract the type of people you want?

In other words, is the market in equilibrium? If the school is not able to attract good enough (or simply enough) teachers, on what grounds can the school be accused of overcompensating teachers? On the flip side, if more than enough good teachers are willing to work at a school then the argument for higher compensation would rest solely on morality/social justice issues rather than market analysis.

If a school can't attract enough good teachers, the school should be made more attractive (through higher pay or other means), but if it can then there's no economic justification for higher pay.

The relative pay of other professions would really only be complementary information to such an analysis -- used to help explain why there are x number of people applying for each job.

I'm not saying that this is the whole story, but this is the bottom line and I'm constantly surprised when economists ignore the market for teachers and grind ideological axes instead.

p.s. I'm not accusing the group that wrote this latest book of grinding an ideological ax -- I haven't read it and, besides, the final paragraph in his blog post indicates that they may have taken this into account

Corey and Skoolboy - thanks for your comments and taking the time to read my post.

I'm still not sure I understand Corey's comment fully, but he touches on an important question that is raised often: if schools are able to fill teaching positions with qualified teachers, isn't the market "in equilibrium," and there is little case to be made for higher salaries?

The answer to the first part of this question is yes--the labor market for teachers is in equilibrium. But the fact that the market has cleared doesn't speak to the broader question of whether wages in teaching are at a level commensurate with the quality of taechers society would like to have in the classroom. Given how important teachers are to educational outcomes, and how dissatisfied policymakers seem to be with education in the U.S., I think the answer to the latter question is no.

A 2003 article by Peter Temin in Education Next covers this idea well: http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/3347281.html.


In response to skoolboy: I agree that it will be difficult (if not impossible) to evaluate whether or not TEP's aggressive teacher pay plan is "working," given the large number of confounding factors in play. But I think the founder's focus on teacher quality is right on the money.

Prof. Corcoran,

I don't want to hijack your post, because the issue of teacher pay is very important. But the logic model for TEP charter and others involves identifying high-quality teachers and then compensating them to recruit and retain them. I know that you and other economists have given a lot of thought to identifying successful teachers. What do you think of the criteria that the TEP charter is proposing to use? They are:

(1) Expert Subject-Area Knowledge demonstrated through
(a) a 90% or higher standardized test score in relevant subject area
(b) significant undergraduate and/or graduate coursework and excellent grades in relevant subject area

(2) Outstanding Verbal Ability demonstrated through
(a) a 90% or higher score in the verbal section of the GRE or GMAT or LSAT
(b) two writing samples, one long-form and one-short form

(3) Teaching Expertise and Experience demonstrated through
(a) a portfolio of achievement of past students, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data
(b) three live teaching auditions
(c) an essay describing personal pedagogical beliefs and approach

(4) Strong Curriculum Development Ability demonstrated through
(a) one originally developed and refined curricular tool of any form (e.g. written materials, instructional methodology, technological innovation).

Do you think that these are appropriate criteria to use to recruit high-quality teachers, given that a focus on high-quality teachers is, in your words, "right on the money"? (You economists!)

I think that Corey's concern for "equilibrium" is quite different from a concern for quality.

As someone involved in teacher education for 35 years, I would say that the quality of teacher education candidates has declined dramatically. Rather than maintaining high standards for admission and retention, many universities have continually, and very gradually, lowered the bar, partly out of a concern for self-preservation.

Saying that schools are "able to fill positions with qualified candidates" seems to be an unrealistic assessment of what is happening in the many communities. Sad as it is to admit, I have had school principals tell me that they "simply need a warm body" to fill a position.

Many of us who entered the teaching profession in times past did so knowing that the salary was modest at best. However, at that time, teachers were rather highly respected members of the community. Relationships with parents had a much more positive dynamic than is true today.

The gradual weakening of the profession has also resulted in a more top-down process of decision making that has stifled and frustrated some of our best and brightest.

It is far more difficult to appeal to the idealism of high school seniors who may be considering the teaching profession. Salaries that are comparable to other professions are necessary now more than ever.

From an economist's perspective, the market is equilibrium when there are enough quality teachers to fill all the teaching positions. If all a principal can find is a warm body, then the market is in disequilibrium and something needs to be changed to shift demand (e.g. higher pay) and/or supply (e.g. different recruiting).

I'm not arguing that this is or isn't the case anywhere, I'm simply saying that this is the first thing that should be examined if somebody wants to examine teacher compensation from an economics perspective. And, too frequently, I see economists disregarding this most basic principle in order to find data that better proves their point.

Corey - I think we're saying the same thing. The important question for policy (and the question that most--though certainly not all--economists are asking) is whether or not earnings offers are sufficient to attract the desired level of quality.

Because quality is inextricably linked to alternative earnings opportunities, the pay and quality issues are inseparable.

Thanks again for the comments.

Skoolboy -
I didn't dive deeper into the TEP charter school's planned criteria for quality (in fact, the NYT article was actually the first time I'd heard of the school). But I'd support a balanced measure of quality that touches on the four criteria you listed.

I think the first two--subject matter expertise and demonstrated aptitude on math or verbal tests--are definitely necessary if clearly not sufficient conditions for high quality teachers.

Given the historically low salaries in teaching, schools have not been able to be terribly selective along these two dimensions (two dimensions that research has been quite supportive of).

On the other hand, in a hypothetical world in which schools start waving $125K salaries around, I think schools would find many more candidates who both have subject matter expertise and high aptitude scores, and are able to demonstrate effectiveness in the classroom.


I taught for four years before leaving the profession to attend law school. I have the following comment on this issue:

Tying teacher salaries to "comparable" other jobs is inappropriate, I believe, because teachers usually work far more hours (and peform more duties) than their contacts state. Additionally, many teachers must use their "off" time in summers/vacation to prepare for school or take required professional development classes. Plus, many teachers work after school as coaches and club sponsors, which significantly adds to a typical work week (with only a minimal increase in pay).

Articles by conservative commentators often try to compare teaching to a typical 9-5 office job - and often falsely state teachers have three months off in the summer.

Having worked as both a teacher and in a typical 9-5 office setting, I can say that teaching hours are often much closer to the hours of corporate attorneys than 9-5 office workers. Commentators should at least be honest about these facts when presenting teacher salary comparisons.

Certainly salaries (and their documented decline, or inability to keep pace with other fields, particularly as more fields opened to women) are a factor in the decline in the availability of high quality teachers. I would be interested in seeing a union take on some of the research. Unions have not--so far as I can see--done much to uphold the quality of the workforce. Based on an industrial model they taken an opposite approach of supporting a broad base, rather than a highly skilled one (although there are industrial models that have supported high wages through limiting the growth of the workforce, insisting on apprenticeships, etc. for entry into the workforce). One might ask, for instance, why coaching and club sponsorship are extensions of teaching at all? Yet these are seen as important perks (and frequently doled out on a seniority basis). These positions might easily be filled by less educated workers (aides, recreation workers, even social workers who, outside of education, get paid less than teachers).

I would love to see a union advocate for year round employment for teachers--with an expectation of more quality control over the use of summers for professional development and planning. Summer school programs might be more adequately staffed if a district has a full complement of teachers to choose from--teaching half-days with the remainder dedicated to learning and planning. The partial year argument is not likely to go away otherwise, as too many parents and taxpayers also work well beyond their regular hours, but do so year round.

While a single charter school may be able to cream off the best teachers by offering a salary way off the charts, unless and until the basic conditions that have fed the overabundance of not so good teachers (lack of high entry requirements at the college level and highly protected job status based on seniority), the overall picture is not likely to change.

Sean - Yes, we are arguing the same thing -- at least in part (I pointed out that I haven't read your book) -- this whole thing started when I mentioned my agreement with what you alluded to in the last paragraph of your post.

In regards to The Equity Project (TEP) charter school: It'll be very interesting to see what happens when salaries of 125K + a possible bonus are offered to teachers, but I must point out that it's not necessarily going to net teachers there a lot more money. After 22 years, NYC teachers make about 100K, and a number of suburbs pay even more. Depending on the way the pension system works for TEP vs. NYC and other districts, teachers could actually be sacrificing money in the long run. Of course, if a teacher with a few years of experience teaches there for a few years and then moves on then they will make out quite well. Though it's also worth pointing out that teachers are expected to work quite a few more hours -- with more kids, and it sounds like less support staff -- than in a traditional public school. That said, I think the 125K will draw quite the pool of applicants.

from my blog:
I've been saying for years that I would still be teaching if I could afford to live on a teacher's salary. Well, The Equity Project (TEP) is a charter school starting in New York City that wants to attract "Master Teachers" by paying them $125,000 plus up to a $25,000 bonus. The founder and principal hit the nail on the head when he said “The money is a signifier. Because money, in our culture, is a signifier of how jobs are valued, and right now schools are telling teachers that they are not valued. The great and talented people who go into teaching are incentive-ized in every possible way to leave the classroom for jobs in administration or jobs outside of schools altogether." That's me. I more than doubled my teaching salary to return to engineering. I would have to take a $60k pay cut to teach now in my own county, but a teaching position at TEP would give me a nice raise to do the work I know I'm meant to do.

TEP is looking for "Master Teachers" by taking applications from people who scored in the 90th percentile of the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT. They're getting the teachers' salaries by cutting out support staff - why hire curriculum experts when the teachers delivering the curriculum are already experts? I'm fine with all of this so far. The problem for me is a statement in a NYT article:

"The school has received ... more than 100 substandard applications (doomed to Mr. Vanderhoek’s No Response File for failing to follow explicit directions)"

He's looking for Master Teachers whom he can trust to make exceptional decisions and "think outside the box" to get the job done, but throwing away those who feel that 2 sentences or 5 sentences can answer a question better than the 3 - 4 sentences prescribed in the application. I filled out the application - that's about as explicit as the directions get. How does he expect to find innovative teachers by restricting the field to sheep?

I could be wrong, Nazis were also known for their exceptional ability to follow explicit directions. Perhaps TEP should use the Milgram experiment as a model for weeding leaders out of the applicant pool.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Guest: from my blog: I've been saying for years that I read more
  • Corey: Sean - Yes, we are arguing the same thing -- read more
  • Margo/Mom: Certainly salaries (and their documented decline, or inability to keep read more
  • Former Teacher: I taught for four years before leaving the profession to read more
  • Sean Corcoran: Skoolboy - I didn't dive deeper into the TEP charter read more




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