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Because I'm Worth It?

I worked for two years at a non-profit whose mission centered on improving teaching. The first and most important thing I learned there was that nobody--not the most supportive policy wonk, not the most effusive public education proponent--understands the sheer hard work and complexity of teaching, unless they've chosen classroom teaching as a long-term career.

About a month after I started at the nonprofit, one of my managers commented on the difference in work load and environment I must be experiencing--all the late nights and weekends, the quick-turnaround demand for meetings, calls, event planning and policy analysis. "You don't get to go home at 3 o'clock when you work here, or take summers off," he remarked. "The work is non-stop. Quite a change for you."

The truth of it? Responsibilities and accountability at the non-profit were much lighter, urgency greatly diminished. Perks (an hour lunch, unlimited bathroom breaks, flexibility to schedule a dentist appointment, secretarial support) felt downright luxurious. I had trouble adjusting to long periods of discretionary time, alone in my cubicle. Yes, there was always work to do. But there was enough time to think, to read, to prepare, to edit, to reflect--and to talk to colleagues.

In fact, for much of the time that I worked there, it felt like a game, played by people who enjoyed a high-profile sense that they were "making a difference"--while the real, nuts-and-bolts work happened in the classroom. I felt like I'd escaped from front-line battles, and was sitting safely, miles away, sending in strategic directives by phone. There was a certain amount of guilt attached to that feeling, guilt not felt by those who saw their "senior policy analyst" positions--and compensation--as well-deserved.

I thought about this experience when I read the recent Heritage Foundation/AEI report on (cough) "overpaid teachers." Two takes on the report: here and here.

This is hardly the first time economists and proponents of a market-based education system have "rebutted" the widely held public perception that teachers are seriously underpaid, given the considerable societal responsibility they've been assigned.

The teacher-salary argument used to center on the erroneous view that teachers only face students for nine months a year, six hours a day, permitting salary comparisons that position teaching as "part-time" work. The usual responses included the fact that teachers generally acquire additional coursework and professional learning in the summer (usually on their own dime).

If there were a system that provided and paid teachers for year-round work responsibilities, we'd all be happier. Unfortunately, we haven't seen our way clear of the agrarian calendar. That's hardly teachers' fault--it's a question of inertia. Plus-- the economists who constructed earlier data analyses on comparable compensation didn't generally address the question of what a truly part-time, at-will instructional workforce might look like.

They could start by looking at Burger King.

The Heritage Foundation report has some new angles. There's a lot about generous benefit packages, capitalizing on recent class-warfarish disputes around the "affordability" of health care and whether public servants deserve to retire in comfort.

The bulk of the statistical case made by the authors is based on teachers' benefits and job security, rather than proportionately rewarding their value to society. It's also about a well-organized, certified, contracted workforce with seniority protections and defined working conditions. Which has somehow become a bad thing.

The most interesting (and unintentionally hilarious) aspect of the report is the authors' assertion that teachers are overpaid based on the "cognitive complexity" of their work. Obviously, they were not factoring the cognitive skills of the cast of Jersey Shore into their salary comparison calculations.

Follow-up reporting includes potshots leveled at how much "gym teachers" make compared to math teachers (revealing the values driving this "journalism"). Anyone who works in schools knows that mathematicians and scientists who want to teach leave the classroom for lucrative opportunities they can't turn down.

Maybe the question isn't whether we pay physical education teachers too much--it's why we don't take steps to fill all positions with quality candidates, why we're choosing economic "efficiency" over genuine investment in public education.

Here's what I want to know: Why did this report come out now?

To me, it feels like bait. A distraction. If we're arguing about how much teachers should be paid--whether it's $150,000 or 52% less than they're paid now-- we're not dealing with other, shameful and even terrifying, inequities.

Are teachers overpaid? How much does compensation matter in building a high-quality teaching force?

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