the national interest

You Get the Teachers You Pay For

The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have a new paper out asserting that teachers are not underpaid — that, basically, they earn more than comparably skilled workers earn in other jobs. I’m willing to stipulate that it’s true (though both think tanks are hack-y enough that the data could easily be cooked.) The main problem is that it doesn’t really answer the important question.

After all, the supply of teachers is going to be set by the price. If teaching is going to be a profession that offers far lower starting wages than most other professions that require a college degree, which it is, then it’s going to draw from the lower ranks of college graduates (which it primarily does.) Aside from some idealists, most of the best and brightest will be drawn toward fields with high pay.

The paper doesn’t really show that we pay teachers enough. It shows that the skill level of the teaching workforce is, on average, commensurate with the pay level. Pay teachers badly, and you’ll get a lot of bad teachers. (Again, plenty of exceptions can be found.) If we paid teachers more, we’d get better teachers.

One odd thing about right-wing thought about education is that it generally ignores the workings of the market. The conservative solutions generally involve busting up the teachers unions without increasing outlays. It fails to explain how schools can expect to hire better teachers if they don’t have any more money to attract them. Likewise, the liberal anti-reform position wants to argue that teachers are underpaid without conceding that the talent pool of current teachers isn’t good enough.

Liberal education reformers generally propose to make it easier to reward good teachers and fire very bad ones, and also to raise the general level of teacher pay. That’s what Michelle Rhee did in Washington, D.C., and that’s what makes sense if you think market signals work in steering people into or out of teaching. I think they do.

You Get the Teachers You Pay For