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Is Teaching an Overrated Career?

Over at the Faculty Room, they're discussing the US News and World Report claim that teaching is an overrated career. Devin Ozdogu shares an old excerpt from Whitney Tilson's guru, Linda Darling-Hammond:

HELP WANTED. College graduate with academic major (master’s preferred). Challenging opportunity to serve 150 clients daily on tight schedule, developing up to five different products each day to meet individual needs. Adaptability helpful since suppliers cannot always deliver goods and support services on time. Diversified position allows employee to exercise typing, clerical, law enforcement, and social work skills between assignments and after hours. Ideal candidate will enjoy working in isolation from colleagues. Typical work week 50 hours. Nature of work precludes use of telephones or computers, but work has many intrinsic rewards. Starting salary $24,661 with chance to earn $36,495 after 15 years.

eduwonkette guest blogger alumnus Sean Corcoran responds, too, and suggests that being a US News "best of" listwriter may the most overrated career of all.

I see why this is interesting, but I don't understand why people are so offended.

If somebody says that your job required a lot of hard work and not enough pay, isn't that a credit to you for doing it?

Corey, don't you find the inference that teachers are too stupid to pursue the "more rewarding" (USNWR's term) alternative careers of private school teacher, corporate trainer, or private tutor offensive?

I think that Sean Corcoran is right -- this is just another in a series of efforts by USNWR to sell magazines, with a list of best and overrated careers that changes from one year to the next -- as if the career prospects and work conditions are that volatile!

My favorite part of this is that, among the list of best careers for 2008 (right alongside professor) is politician. The author, Marty Nemko, writes that a smart specialty is "County Schools Superintendent. Your day-to-day life consists of leading the planning for all the school districts in your county, guiding grant writers, schmoozing with legislators, and solving thorny problems like union negotiations or disputes between principals and parents." "No formal training is required," he writes. Good to know! The American Association of School Administrators reports that in 2006, the mean tenure of superintendents was 5.5 years, and that 60% of all superintendents report considerable or very great stress in their jobs.

I suppose it's just a coincidence that Nemko's wife is a school superintendent.

Hmm, I'm not getting that at all. "People enter such careers as teacher or nonprofit manager to make a difference, only to encounter frustrating roadblocks at every turn" doesn't sound to me like teachers are too stupid to do something else, it sounds to me like their jobs are tougher than most people realize. Maybe it's just me, but I look up to people that choose less rewarding careers that are more important to society.

That said, I'll agree with you about the stupidity of the whole list. I see no serious analysis -- just gimmickry with which they can sell magazines.

The problem is that the teachers unions make it possible for a teacher actually to work very few hours during the week, take the whole summer off, and never work on the weekends. The teachers who do so - and get paid just as much as those of us who work 60+ hours per week - are the real culprits who downgrade the profession.

If the union would allow some merit pay for the hard-working among us, allow some bad teachers to get fired, and eliminate the senseless seniority and tenure rules, maybe we would be viewed as a real profession.

Hi Socrates,

I'm glad you brought up merit pay and working hours together. Other professions like law and medicine award bonuses based on hours worked rather than the outcomes of the clients they serve. And, as you note, there's tremendous variation in working hours. At the high school level (based on data from the Schools and Staffing Survey), teachers work an average of 53.7 hours a week (SD=9.5). Teachers in the bottom quartile work 48 hours or less a week, while teachers in the top quartile work 60 or more hours a week.

What do you think about the potential for using hours worked as part of a merit pay plan? On the positive side, we would be rewarding the behavior that we'd like to see, and the difficulties of measuring teachers' individual contributions to any student's academic growth could be avoided. Obviously, the downside is that tracking "billable hours" creates perverse incentives to finesse the number of hours worked.

skoolboy, I'm leaving this profession to become a County Schools Superintendent. Guess that means I don't have to work on our paper this wknd!

I think that pay differentiation based on hours worked is better than the system-wide pay equalization we have now, but still not as good as a nuanced outcomes-based differentiation would be (not just test-score-based).

The problem with an effort-based incentives program, beyond the perverse incentives you mention, is that it's hard to implement in the current context. The doctor or lawyer who doesn't get results - or who cheats on their billable hours tally - can be fired (or sued); a unionized teacher cannot.

Another issue with effort-based merit pay is that it would undoubtedly lead to many cases of mediocre brand new teachers getting paid more than veterans who achieve tremendous results. If someone can get results without as much effort, they shouldn't be punished by the compensation system.

Ultimately, what we want from our teachers are positive student outcomes, from happy children to high test scores to tremendous critical thinkers. Those outcomes are the ones upon which our teachers should be evaluated and pay should be determined.

I think you overstate the power and perverse influence of unions. If teachers were paid by billable hours they, quite clearly, could be fired for lying.

Developing an in-depth and fair evaluation system and then paying teachers based on results sounds like such a perfect idea on paper, but I'm wondering if such a system has been implemented anywhere. Is there any other profession that has developed such a system? Anybody know?

I doubt it's ever been done within a regular public school system, though I know there are some charter schools that base their merit pay on far more than just test scores. It wouldn't really be that hard to just use some combination of teacher ratings from observations and more objective measures like test scores and possibly even attendance. This is unlikely to have happened in a district because the unions fight any kind of measurement of teachers, though, as their goal is to obscure the differences between the bad and good teachers, because such obfuscation makes it easier to keep the low performing teachers employed and paying dues.

Corey writes:

Developing an in-depth and fair evaluation system and then paying teachers based on results sounds like such a perfect idea on paper, but I'm wondering if such a system has been implemented anywhere. Is there any other profession that has developed such a system? Anybody know?

My take on merit pay is that the advocates for bringing it to public school teaching over-estimate its prevalence in other professions. Certainly my conversations with people who work in private sector jobs where they are "evaluated" annually don't leave me with the impression that evaluations are seen as particularly meaningful.

I think many universities have effective and respected evaluation procedures, but they are extremely labor intensive. I'd certainly be interested in hearing about systems used by the charter schools that Socrates mentions.

However, I don't quite follow his argument about unions wanting to keep low performing teachers paying union dues. If the low performing teachers left, they would be replaced by other teachers who also paid union dues.

As far a I can tell -- and my view is from the management side of the table -- unions fight poor evaluations of individual teacher because the individual teacher are members, and that's one of the things unions to for their members. However, they fight merit pay as a concept, because the majority -- often the overwhelming majority -- of their members don't have confidence that it will be implemented fairly.

And I doubt the current framing of the pay-for-performance and value-added debate almost entirely in terms of test scores does anything to lessen that skepticism.

I'm still stuck on that part in the article that said there was the possibility of a six figure salary? What classroom teacher pulls down six figures? Certainly not any that I know of in Texas.

Socrates talks about results but doesn't get specific and when I ask, he comes back with "smarter people than me can figure it out." Well, they haven't. "Results" always translates into scores on high stakes tests. Does Socrates support other "results" like merit pay for the teachers with the highest grad rates? Or the highest attendance? One area where results are clear are on AP exams. Can you make a judgement on a teacher based on the percentage of students who pass? Of course, there may be other factors. In a sense, there is a form of merit pay involved in that the best teachers (even with seniority operating) often get to teach these classes.

In other words, there has always been a form of "merit" involved in that many principals find a way to reward the teachers they want to (not necessarily the best, but the most loyal). School stories are loaded with the favs in each school who get cushy jobs and even more opportunities to earn money. Even results of tests can be influenced by which kids are in the class or even the time of the day - first period and last period, for instance.

Norm, I can't agree more. I would definitely use many of the outcomes you mention, including grad rates and AP scores when relevant. I would also use principal, peer, and/or third-party evaluations as part of the picture.

If a big concern is the objectivity of the principal, the way to overcome that is not to eliminate differentiation, but to insist that it be objective and outcomes-based.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Socrates: Norm, I can't agree more. I would definitely use many read more
  • Norm: Socrates talks about results but doesn't get specific and when read more
  • Mybellringers: I'm still stuck on that part in the article that read more
  • Rachel: Corey writes: Developing an in-depth and fair evaluation system and read more
  • Socrates: I doubt it's ever been done within a regular public read more




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