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Go Teach, Young Man: Tweaking Risk and Reward to Recruit Male Teachers

How do we attract more top-performing male teachers to the profession, and what role does compensation play?

EdWeek recently published an op-ed, Rethinking Teacher Compensation, by Laura Overdeck, Arthur Levine, and Christopher Daggett. The authors argue that states should reallocate compensation funding away from "backloaded" plans such as defined-benefit pensions, and toward earlier-career perks like higher starting salaries and annual bonuses.

Around the same time, I read another op-ed, entitled "Reasons why men should be teaching in the classroom, too," by William Gomley. Like the EdWeek op-ed, Gomley's editorial makes reference to the 2010 McKinsey study Closing the Talent Gap, which makes it clear that top-performing nations recruit and retain their teachers very differently than we do in the US. Gomley argues that we're failing to attract men to the profession, and this has real consequences:

Here's a simple idea that could dramatically improve the teaching quality: Hire a few good men.

Despite some inroads by men, teaching remains a female-dominated profession. This is especially true for younger children. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2 percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers and 18 percent of elementary and middle-school teachers are men. The situation is more balanced, but not evenly balanced, in secondary school, where 42 percent of teachers are men.

Why should this concern us?

First, men represent an underutilized talent pool. If we could attract more males to teaching, school districts would have an easier time hiring outstanding individuals. The point is not that men are better teachers, but that highly qualified men are far less likely to apply for teaching jobs.

This is an interesting point: Allowing the profession to remain female-dominated means that the majority of our teachers will be below average, compared to the distribution we'd have if men were better-represented. Obviously this argument involves lots of assumptions (including that teaching skill isn't correlated with gender yet is somewhat innate rather than developed; otherwise, it makes no sense to argue that we're "missing out" on people who never enter teaching), but let's go with it for a minute.

I don't have exact numbers, but let's assume 75% of teachers are women. This means that we're dipping far into the shallow end of the talent pool to fill all of the jobs that would be filled with more capable people (in this scenario, men) if they were available. Could we get better teachers by attracting more men, and would this put us on par with McKinsey's fabled top-performing nations?

Interestingly enough, the teaching ranks in Finland are just as dominated by women as in the US. It's the same for Singapore and South Korea, though the latter has gender parity in secondary schools. Teaching is probably always going to be a female-dominated profession to some extent, simply because it involves working with children (I'll leave further speculation on the reasons for this as an exercise for the reader), but perhaps there are things we can do to attract more men to the field.

One strength of our current system is that teaching is a solid if non-lucrative option for new graduates. I chose teaching because it provided an immediate and viable professional path; the opportunity to have a non-entry-level job right out of college was something I found very appealing as an undergraduate. By majoring in a high-need area (secondary science), I was virtually guaranteed a job, whereas my friends in medical school were years away from earning a good living, and my friends in tech struggled to find good jobs due to the dotcom crash.

I wasn't worried about the long-term issues with staying in teaching—such as the prospect of making less than $50,000 a year for the next two decades—but those issues eventually became apparent as my friends in other fields started to become established in their careers.

It's here that the peculiarities of US society become extremely salient when we're comparing ourselves to Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, the high-performing nations highlighted in the McKinsey report. In the US, a young professional can invest 15 or 20 years in becoming a doctor, enter private practice or a lucrative specialty, and make $300,000 or $400,000 a year by age 40. In a country where doctors don't earn such breathtaking salaries relative to teachers, it's probably not as difficult to recruit more top students into teaching.

Similarly, a sharp young person working for a tech startup can count on a high-five-figures salary along with stock options, which aren't an option in the public sector (or, I would guess, in many other countries).

What's the solution? While recruiting top students will remain a challenge, recruiting men may be a bit easier, and some of these men will be high-performers. I'm inclined to think that men will find riskier, bonus-oriented compensation systems more attractive, even if society's overall spending on teacher pay remains flat.

What if we provided a choice of compensation systems, with some alternatives geared toward stability and security, and others more aligned with high-risk, high-reward preferences? The most straightforward way to create such as system is to offer a flatter compensation system with a higher base salary, as well as a bonus-oriented system with a lower base salary but the potential for sizeable bonuses that would elevate earnings above the highest base salaries.

When individuals can choose their salary system, they can express their risk/reward preferences within the teaching profession, not by opting out of the profession entirely. Perhaps this would attract more men to the profession, and perhaps that would make a difference for students.

Your thoughts?

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