The Lobotomy of Low Wages

Economic incentives matter. This is true for teaching, as for other professions. In the words of a recent academic study examining teacher wages and student outcomes, “If you pay peanuts, don’t you get monkeys?” (hat-tip to Andrew Sullivan & Stephen Pampinella. While American public schools are still awful even after correcting for low wages (think Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey), the relationship between teacher wages and student outcomes is pretty clear:

The real decline in wages for teachers that occurred when society stopped massive de jure and de facto discrimination against women lobotomized the teaching profession.

The reason is obvious: workers have alternatives to teaching, and if you ‘tax’ teaching by paying it less, you get fewer high quality workers in it. This matters beyond just test scores: the collapse of teachers as an influential political bloc and teachers’ embrace of such agitators as Diane Ravitch may well be explained by the emergent effects of lowering the quality of teachers through paying them less.

Teachers want money, and they want it in a way that avoids measuring teacher performance. Unfortunately for teachers as a political bloc, other powerful forces have entered the debate, including powerful federal and academic institutions.

I do not think it is politically sustainable for teachers to unaccountably deliver terrible results while loudly demanding comfortable wages. In fact, I believe this political strategy is downright foolish. It is a sign that the teaching profession has suffered the lobotomy of low wages. While teachers sit like vegetables as the world pass them by, other forces are replacing them (such as this example of a move by Districts and the Federal-Academic Complex to have some students taught by professors, not teachers at all).

If teacher advocates do seriously join the debate, and contribute to a discussion of how better paid teachers can be better measured, we will get “idiot-proof teaching” scripts and the replacement of teachers by completely fungible drones.

10 thoughts on “The Lobotomy of Low Wages”

  1. A couple of thoughts:
    1. The possibility of Netherlands-/Switzerland- level remuneration would be a mighty sweet bargaining chip for otherwise-resisted performance requirements. The main limits would be a) paying for it and b) pushing it through politically after years of demonizing.

    2. Indirect remuneration offers a means of improving the quality of teaching regardless of what the union thinks. Competitive scholarships at private university teaching programs is one such method; a free ride at a desirable school would attract smart students who might otherwise be uninterested in teaching wages. Similarly, free housing would be tempting to teachers otherwise faced with long commutes or a lifetime of renting–it would be more complicated in poor neighborhoods, because of crime risks, but the payoff in better teaching would also be greater.

  2. Michael,

    Excellent comment!

    It is a bargaining chip, but recall the uncertainty in the process (who is actually a ‘good teacher’?) and risk-aversion (people consider a $1 decrease as more meaningful than a $1 increase). The first point emphasizes the importance of labor solidarity, and the second makes rewards ‘expensive’ even without a solid labor bargaining bloc.

    I’ve advocated for higher teacher salaries in a reformed context on this blog [1], but I suspect a more likely outcome is that teachers will refuse to be part of the conversation, and we’ll be left with idiot-proof teaching scripts read by drones.


  3. How much of the lower pay for teachers is due to the number of people getting education degrees? I have a vague memory of reading something a year or more back that implied that there are a large number of people who get education degrees after they couldn’t, for example, get into an engineering program.

    More potential teachers leading to the ability to pay less?

  4. Jack,

    Great comment!

    I would imagine you are right. In my experience pre-service high-school teachers tend to be frustrated by other majors, and are taking the teaching degree as an easy way to graduate with an employable degree while using the credits they already have.

    It definitely seems like a chicken-and-egg problem. I’m sure there are other things going on to (levels of taxation, etc), but teaching is definitely in a vicious cycle now, regardless of how it began.

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