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Teacher comp plank posted January 3, 2007

Posted by @Doc in Education.

Today’s lesson: basic economics apply to teaching. There are a lot of incredibly talented people out there who’d rather be teaching, but when push comes to shove they’re simply not willing to sacrifice their ability to earn a decent living. So they take the better job for twice the pay, and the teaching job goes to the person who doesn’t have the skills and ability to land that higher paying job.

Happens every day. And it’s time it stopped happening. It’s time we stopped paying lip service, and little else, to the idea that teaching is important and noble. It’s time we started applying the basic laws of economics to the incomparably critical task of preparing for the future.

The teacher compensation platform plank is posted here, and can also be accessed off thePlatform page. As always, comments are welcome.



1. urizon - January 3, 2007

I’m a forty-three-year-old grad student in English, at a SUNY in the Hudson Valley, and I’m about to teach my third section of freshman comp. I discovered, somewhat later in life, that I had a passion for teaching English. I simply love being in the classroom.

However, I have accumulated along the way nearly sixty-thousand dollars in student loan debt. I have no idea how I’m going to pay it back, especially when I stop to consider that a tenure-track job will probably elude someone in my age group (though I certainly hope to be proved wrong).

The good news is that SUNY appears to realize that having a faculty made up of mostly adjuncts creates an environment in which the majority of instructors could be forced into an adversarial relationship with their employer. There are a few tenure-track jobs opening up, in other words; only the best and brightest need apply, however.

So I have great interest in this campaign, if only for the reason that I’ll have someplace to rant about the state of our decrepit educational system.

So let me ask a question: Is Dr. Slammy a persona, or do you actually plan on winning?

If the latter, dibs on secretary of education.

2. drslammy - January 4, 2007

First, I wish you well with the career move. It’s gutsy, and I probably have nothing to tell you about the world of being an academic with an English degree that you don’t already know.

Now, do I plan on winning. Let me quote from the press release:

No matter how brilliant the platform might turn out to be, Smith’s campaign has a major problem. He has no political experience, no money, no fund-raising organization (and no intentions of developing one), no campaign manager, no running mate and no party. He hasn’t filed with the Federal Elections Commission and doesn’t plan to. He’s not even trying to get on any state ballots. So clearly this isn’t a serious campaign, right?

“Oh, it’s serious, all right.” He laughs as he suggests that victory is indeed possible, “so long as I get to define what I mean by victory.

“It seems unlikely that I’ll wind up in the White House, even as a dinner guest. But America doesn’t need me in the West Wing in order to act on these ideas. We’ll hold a victory party once we get our country’s decision makers to take a hard look at our proposals. In recent years the ‘education debate,’ if I can even use that term, has been so inane and so frustrating that I’ve begun using the term ‘War on Education.’

“If we can replace cynical, ideologically driven policies that profiteer off of our failure with an honest, intelligent consideration of the core causes of that failure, we all win.”

3. drslammy - January 4, 2007

A great issue was raised yesterday in a face-to-face I had with one of our new contributors. In essence, he feels that the big issue here isn’t teacher comp so much as it is the need for educational productivity. I won’t speak for him, but I think we’ll be revisiting this plank once he posts his thoughts on the subject. After listening to his pitch, I’m optimistic that we may have a way to hitting our goals without actually having to overspend on certain things in the shorter term.

Looking forward to it.

4. SilverSliver - January 6, 2007

If you wonder about the state of science education at all, consider that it takes half the credits of science coursework (mostly intro classes) to get a state-certified B. A. in education degree as it does to get the B.S. in the field. And despite state incentive programs to get people who got the B.S. a paid Masters of Ed degree in time for tenure review, in most schools a starting salary is 1/2 to 2/3 of what I’d earn in industry in the same geographic area. The rich school districts that can compete with private sector salaries tend to have good to excellent science teachers already. I think the trend is less pronounced in the humanities, but in most cases people have loans (sometimes a hundred thousand dollars or more) that need to be paid off, and the highest-paying job offer is the only one they can afford to take, even if they’re passionate about something else. One lesson I still remember was a new history teacher writing out a monthly budget on the board and saying, “After my [rent, car, student loans, etc.], I have $200 a month for food and entertainment. $30k a year doesn’t sound so extravagant now, does it?”

When I was an undergrad I was told by a high school teacher with an advanced degree in my field, “You don’t want to teach high school. Twenty years ago, I’d say go for it, but now there is no discipline, no control, and nobody wants to learn.” The social environment at my high school was generally poisonous, conformative, and anti-intellectual. I didn’t see the teachers (especially the ones who taught critical thinking) having to deal with less BS than we did as students, either: they caught flak from the administration *and* the students. No wonder that even though I love teaching, I don’t want to go back to that sort of place! I’m hoping to be able to teach at a college. I’ll still be underpaid (again, 1/2-2/3 of what I’d make in industry – that’s tenture track!) but if education is valued, I’ll be happy.

5. jstephenobrien - January 9, 2007

Pay and Market Forces

Let’s try approaching the issue of compensation for teachers by taking a hard look at pay in the US. Like it or not, pay is generally linked to two things: supply and demand, and productivity. Looking at the big picture, the teaching profession is no exception.

The supply and demand feature is familiar to almost everyone. Simplified, the issue is “how much do I have to pay to get an acceptably qualified individual into a particular position.” Employers, be they public or private, generally do not want to spend more than they have to for labor. Sometimes, they are forced to increase pay because of a dearth of qualified applicants. For instance, it’s become common in some school districts to pay a premium for teachers in technical areas such as math and the hard sciences. But there are more than enough acceptably qualified applicants (it would seem) in most subject areas that there has been little pressure to increase teacher pay because of supply problems.

The productivity part of the equation is less well known. Productivity, as measured by output over input, tends to be the underlying driver of pay in a particular business. Often, it overrides the supply and demand equation. For instance, semi-skilled laborers in automobile manufacturing could be had for much less than their current union pay, but because of automation and the value-added nature of the automobile, it was historically more advantageous to pay them very well than to shut down the assembly line for a few days because of a strike.

On the other end of the spectrum, Goldman Sachs gave out bonuses this year that averaged over $600,000 per employee. Are Goldman Sachs workers that much more productive than workers in other industries? That’s doubtful. But if you measure productivity by profits over employment-related costs, they are very productive, indeed. A few people can figure out how to invest billions of dollars, and a very few basis points carved from that very large number leads to very large numbers on paychecks.

In the end, when supply and demand forces in the labor market are overridden, it is almost always because the organization can afford it. Unions have been able to gain substantial wage concessions in capital-intensive industries, but have not been nearly as successful in getting high rates of pay for workers in labor-intensive fields such as agriculture and retail. The same is true of most other service businesses. When it comes right down to it, service businesses can rarely afford to pay well because they have high productivity, so they fall back on supply and demand. If you’re in a service business with high demand and low supply, then you may get a fat paycheck. This may happen if you’re a physician, extremely skilled attorney, very successful financial advisor, or the like. Otherwise, you’re probably spending a lot of time shopping at Savers.

Education affordability

US citizens are lucky to live in a country rich enough to buy universal education for everyone up to the 12th grade, should they want it. But there is a limit to that wealth, and there is a limit to what taxpayers will pay for that education. I believe that the real issue is return on investment or, to keep with the theme, productivity.

In essence, what Dr. Slammy is proposing is that we reduce productivity (as measured in cost per child or teaching personnel per child). We then would count on the American taxpayer to agree that the demand for incrementally better teachers is so high that a very high cost is worth it. We would also be counting on the American taxpayer to agree that it is a good idea to incur these additional costs when the return on investment will not be seen until higher pay begins to attract more talented teachers and current teachers retire. In other words, we’re asking them to accept zero return on investment for at least five years, and then only small returns for many years thereafter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very much in favor of improving education in the US. If money were no object, I’d favor giving every child an extremely talented and well-paid private tutor. I think that would work very well, but it’s not realistic. It’s not fiscally sustainable. Dr. Slammy has made it clear that he’s aware of the difficulties and wants that rarest of all things: a political plank that might actually work in the real world.

I submit that there is only one sustainable way to increase teacher pay. We must improve productivity. In essence, we need lower personnel costs per pupil, not higher ones. Dr. Slammy has suggested that reducing central office personnel might help achieve this, but I’m skeptical (but then, I’m a skeptic by training and inclination). My reasonably well informed perception of my own school district is that the central office would be a lot more effective with more, not fewer, people. This is not to say that there isn’t drag from central offices and that waste should be minimized. It’s just that I don’t think it’s likely that we will find all the funding we need from that source.

So, if we are going to increase teacher productivity, the issue is how we go about doing this.

I have some ideas I will submit in the next post.

6. drslammy - January 9, 2007

I would strenuously object to one of J Stephen O’s assertions here: “In essence, what Dr. Slammy is proposing is that we reduce productivity (as measured in cost per child or teaching personnel per child).”

My platform is explicitly billed as a first draft, and your contributions are precisely how we’ll get from a very conceptual first shot to an airtight final draft. While I began open to the question of how many teachers we need, my specific complaint is less about the number of teaching professionals and more about the quality. We may well be better off with fewer, as counter-intuitive as it sounds to those who haven’t heard more of your thinking, as I have.

Your analysis of the dynamics affecting productivity in this sector is compelling, and having talked with you about how we get from point A to point B, I’m very much looking forward to your promised follow-up.

I’ll be surprised if more than 1% of my original draft – on this plank and others – survives until 2008. I’m looking forward to a growing network of smart folks demonstrating what I’m missing and how it can be done better.

Fire at will.

7. drslammy - January 9, 2007

Re: SilverSliver’s comment above:

I have a dream. (Well, I do.) As it is now, good people walk away, as you yourself illustrate nicely. And you envision a world where somebody with your skills and commitment can go ahead and enter the profession.

In a world where education is functioning properly, I’d say it goes a step further. You don’t just agree to enter the profession, you do your best to crack a profession that’s so competitive it’s turning geniuses away by the truckload.

I’d love to live in a society where really really smart people go to work in corporate America because they can’t get a job teaching.

Mind you, I’m not holding my breath….

8. jstephenobrien - January 10, 2007

Dr. Slammy,

You are right and I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply that your plank is against productivity. That was sloppy language on my part. Of course you’re trying to improve results (the output part of the “input over output” formula) by increasing resources. At some point, of course, infinite new resources will produce only tiny, incremental gains because the process and system itself cannot produce more the way it is currently structured.

My bad. I’ll try harder next time.

9. drslammy - January 10, 2007

Heh – no, given the way I was phrasing things, you were more than fair in calling me on what certainly appears to be conventionally focused thinking. There’s a point where I want bold new ideas, but my thinking is still constrained by older models – got to get past that.

You’re actually putting some meat into my desire for truly innovative thinking, and for that we’re all the better.

10. angliss - January 10, 2007

One of the problems with public school is that too man of the employees the public schools draw are worse than useless. I’ve heard horror stories from teacher friends about district IT departments that are so clueless that they’ll start a major SW upgrade in the middle of the school day when it kill software that EVERY teacher in the district uses for the several hours it takes to do the upgrade, and that assumes that the upgrade goes smoothly.

I’ve also personally met some teachers who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near kids. Not because the teacher’s a sicko, but because he/she has no classroom management skills, never learned any, and has no interest in ever learning any. I’ve also personally met school secretaries who think it’s more important to screw over the teachers they don’t like than it is to do the business of the school.

In essence, every public school district I’ve got moderately detailed information on has more than its share of people who couldn’t cut it in private industry or who were too lazy to try. We need a way to cut these folks out of the education field entirely without totally destroying the protections that tenure grants (things like requiring a due-process to fire a teacher who happens to teach politically inconvenient subjects like the history of the US toward Native Americans and interned Japanese-Americans in WWII or evolution). If we could guarantee these protections some way, then I’d personally be willing to purge official tenure as a way to get rid of the festering boil on the ass of public schools that is some public school employees.

11. jstephenobrien - January 12, 2007


You’re experience in private industry is very different from mine. I think I’ve been around private industry for a long time (pretty much my whole working career) doing everything from conducting hundreds of focus groups to running meetings of the compensation committee of the board of directors to determine CEO and other executive pay.

My experience with private industry is that it’s absolutely full of the same kinds of people you say exist only in schools. To me, the only difference is that our CHILDREN are involved, so we pay a lot more attention. As for IT, I have never worked anywhere or done research anywhere where people talked about how wonderful and competent the IT department was.

12. angliss - January 12, 2007


I don’t think that there are any fewer useless employees in private industry, just that private industry has a way to get rid of them once they’re identified, especially in a right-to-work state like Colorado – fire them. Too many public employees (not just in public schools) can’t just be outright fired for gross incompetence.

Of course, I’m not sure that this discussion really belongs in teacher compensation. Maybe Dr. Slammy will put out something in his plank to go into this in more detail. Something about tenure and due-process in public school hiring/firing decisions and/or the entire public sector would be good to see.

13. drslammy - January 12, 2007

You don’t need me to do that. You can initiate a post on the subject yourself if so led.

However, yeah, effective ed systems have to be able to evaluate talent and act on those evals. Good people are rewarded, bad people are encouraged to find work elsewhere.

While I’ve never worked anywhere that people praised IT for being wonderful, I’ve worked places where I at least understood why they were less than we might hope for. Given what I know about schools and budgeting, my working assumption is that IT is a disaster in every single school district in America. In most, they probably have a good excuse….

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