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Re: Are Public-School Teachers Underpaid



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Andrew Biggs is invaluable on public sector compensation and a variety of other issues. So it’s no surprise that the new paper on teacher compensation he’s co-authored with Jason Richwine is worthy of study. I was particularly interested by this piece of it, on whether the difference between teacher wages and non-teacher wages was attributable to education and experience:

• The wage gap between teachers and non-teachers disappears when both groups are matched on an objective measure of cognitive ability rather than on years of education.

• Public-school teachers earn higher wages than private- school teachers, even when the comparison is limited to secular schools with standard curriculums.

• Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent. Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.

This is something I’ve conjectured about before, though I didn’t have the data to back it up:

[T]he argument that the public-private compensation disparity isn’t so great when one controls for education and experience . . . has always bugged me. And while I haven’t buried my head in the relevant books enough to counter it substantively, here is, at least, an “irritable mental gesture.”

Folks like teachers and cops often earn more for getting advanced degrees, not necessarily because they get better at their jobs, but because that nexus is enshrined in their collective bargaining agreements. Many public sector contracts subsidize higher education, and nearly all of them pin salary increases to the attainment of more and more sheepskin. So the fact that better-paid public sector employees often have richly-filigreed diplomas from Hollywood Upstairs Public Safety College doesn’t tell me they’ve increased their real labor value.

If anything, my anecdotal experience as a reporter covering the cop shop and school boards in a machine state like New Jersey has shown me that many of these individuals have been educated beyond their intelligence. In the world of secondary education, for instance, Ed.D.s are mailed out with laundry detergent samples.

Paranoid as it may sound, all this really tells me is that there is an awful lot of one-hand-washing-the-other going on between two reliably Democratic voting blocs. Both unions and universities are by their nature liberal institutions. 

Biggs and Richwine indeed confirm that just because teachers are better educated it doesn’t make them smarter–or worth more money:

“[E]ducation is a less rigorous course of study than other majors: Teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores but receive much higher GPAs than other students. It may be that a degree in education simply does not reflect the same underlying skills and knowledge as a degree in, say, history or chemistry. When we compare salaries based on objective measures of cognitive ability — such as SAT, GRE, or IQ scores — the teacher salary penalty disappears.”

It’s a harsh thing to say of a group as socially valued as teachers, and of course in generalizations there are many, many individual exceptions (I’m sure there are brilliant education majors, in fact I can think of a couple who taught at my old high school). But if it’s true it’s critically important to the way we think about education policy. Increasing teacher pay isn’t necessarily going to attract better teachers if it is still attracting, well, education majors.



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