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Subsidies to the Teaching Profession


As Nicholas Kristof noted a few months ago in the NY Times, the quality of the teaching profession was long subsidized by discrimination and other barriers preventing talented people from entering other fields:

Until a few decades ago, employment discrimination perversely strengthened our teaching force. Brilliant women became elementary school teachers, because better jobs weren't open to them. It was profoundly unfair, but the discrimination did benefit America's children.

These days, brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers -- and 47 percent of America's kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores). The figure is from a study by McKinsey & Company, "Closing the Talent Gap."

Changes in relative pay have reinforced the problem. In 1970, in New York City, a newly minted teacher at a public school earned about $2,000 less in salary than a starting lawyer at a prominent law firm. These days the lawyer takes home, including bonus, $115,000 more than the teacher, the McKinsey study found.

While the gender-discrimination subsidy is now greatly diminished, the teaching profession continues to be subsidized by several other forces.

First is the charity-work subsidy - the education workforce is strengthened by people's willingness to "donate" their time to a worthwhile endeavor, perhaps after a successful career in a more lucrative field. As I reviewed nearly 200 job applications for an open position this week, I saw several instances of this pattern on résumés. Once you've made your fortune (perhaps in a less-than-noble line of work), teaching has a giving-back appeal. Rich kids living on parental largesse can also choose to participate in this subsidy.

Second is what I (perhaps insensitively) call the rich-husband subsidy - the teacher workforce contains a not insubstantial number of women whose significant others have better-paying jobs, which allows them the luxury of working for lower wages than they'd otherwise be able to tolerate. Of course, this subsidy harms single women who need to live on a teacher's salary, as well as men and women who don't have spouses who substantially out-earn them. For men in particular, the idea of choosing a career that needs to be financially supported by a partner's career isn't very appealing. The impact of this subsidy to the teaching workforce shouldn't be underestimated.

The third and most prevalent subsidy is the vow-of-poverty subsidy, which results from millions of educators knowing what they're getting into, and choosing a life of limited means and sacrifice for the greater good. Many educators reject higher-paying alternatives because they believe education to be a worthy endeavor.

These subsidies allow teacher salaries to remain low, because market forces are not operating the way they do in most other professions. As a result, teaching attracts another kind of person (and this gets the most attention from columnists like Kristof and studies like McKinsey's): the person with no better options. As the McKinsey study argues forcefully, no top-performing nation has built its system of education on such a workforce; Singapore and Finland, for example, recruit their teachers from the top third of college graduates.

I graduated at the top of my class, so what drew me into education? As a new college grad with a chemistry degree and a teaching certificate, I could get a $30-$40K job anywhere in the country, with no graduate school and a fair amount of job security—not such a bad proposition during the dotcom bust. When your friends in IT are getting laid off before their first day on the job, and your pre-med classmates are facing years of medical school before their first paycheck, teaching sounds pretty good. The problem is that it doesn't stay that way.

When you have other options, and you're expecting to advance the way your peers are, what's a sensible person to do? Recommit to the path you've chosen (vow of poverty, anyone?) or choose a new path. As a national strategy for developing a strong, professional teaching workforce, expecting our top graduates to take a vow of poverty doesn't sound like a winning plan.

Our teaching profession is currently built on the backs of at least three subsidies, and perhaps more. What will happen if these subsidies expire? If the charity-work teachers decide they no longer feel respected and appreciated by an accountability-crazed system? If the rich-husband teachers decide they deserve the esteem their partners are getting in the workplace? If the vow-of-poverty teachers decide the vow isn't worth it?

All of these are realistic scenarios and need to be considered carefully by policymakers as they envision the future of America's teaching workforce.

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