Frying Eggers: Part Deux, or Teacher’s Pay Again

Last year, I ripped Dave Eggers when he complained about low teacher pay. But there he goes again – he was in last week’s New York Times lamenting the fact that teachers have to work in the summer! Dave might enjoy this debate between economists Michael Podgursky, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Lawrence Mishel, President of the Economic Policy Institute. They’ve spent the last couple of years figuring out how much teachers get paid when compared to other professionals. Click here to read a nice exchange between them. As you might imagine, it’s tricky. How should one account for summer vacation? Part time employment? Extra hours spent at home grading papers? How about fringe benefits and perks? It’s not a question for meek.

The key issue isn’t how much they get paid, or whether they get paid less than other people. It’s all about supply and demand. Just ask yourself: what’s the supply? What’s the demand? In a nutshell, teaching is a profession with modest to high demand but low barriers to entry. Eggers & co propose higher teacher pay. And, of course, higher pay will attract better applicants. But that’ll only go so far. Low barriers to entry will always produce downward pressure on wages.

As one skeptic pointed out, the real problem isn’t low pay. You don’t want to pay people just for being teachers. You want to pay good teachers. Even if you get good applicants, they could still flake once they get the job. So here’s my suggestion for the state governments and teacher’s associations:

  • Create a system of voluntary standardized tests in different subjects. Make ’em tough so you can really figure out who knows their subject.

Here’s my suggestion for teachers:

  • Create a teaching portfolio that shows what you’ve done. It could have syllabi, student projects, testimonials, standardized test scores, analyses of student performance, etc.

School districts should then demand portfolios and test scores from teachers and then pay them according to how well they do in these two tasks. Even if a math teacher isn’t a master of calculus, they could still show that they are really good at teaching basic math, or working with underprivileged children. A school district that publicizes teacher knowledge and abilities can then make informed judgments and come up with a decent strategy for hiring, given their budget. Maybe I’m misguided, but it’s probably a better approach than just raising everybody’s paycheck.