When it comes to teachers’ salaries, there is plenty of passion, but little logic, out there. In this New York Times editorial, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari argue that America’s education system would be much improved if college students were given more incentive to become teachers and if teachers were paid more. That argument makes no sense. It represents a common misconception about teachers’ salaries.
Teachers’ pay is not a moral issue; it is an economic one. Principals and school boards do not ask themselves, “How much does Teacher A deserve to make based on her contribution to society?” Instead, they say to themselves, “We have $X. How many qualified teachers can we get for that?” The difference is critical. It means that the people who hire teachers are going to pay them as little as they can while still getting quality teachers. That is how it should be. That way, school boards will have more money to spend on other educational programs or more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. A school board’s goal is to provide the best education possible, and paying teachers just enough to ensure quality instruction is consistent with that goal.
Now, the key question is, “Why don’t school boards have to pay more for quality teachers?” The answer is an issue of supply and demand. If the number of teachers looking for jobs increases and all other factors remain the same, salaries will fall. When there are good teachers willing to work for less money, school boards will tend to hire them and use the money saved for other purposes. Of course, if the supply of teachers were to drop, wages would increase.
There are several ways to reduce the supply of teachers, but most of them would not be particularly pleasant for teachers. One way would be to make teaching appear less attractive to college students. Teachers commonly complain about how difficult their chosen profession is. It does seem to be difficult. However, if teachers lived such terrible lives that nobody in their right mind would want to be a teacher, the number of people going into teaching would be much smaller. Whether people are attracted by the sense of fulfillment, the stability, the summer breaks or some other reason, the bottom line is that there are plenty of people who want to be teachers. To increase salaries, that pool would have to be reduced. Year-round calendars, greater continuing-education requirements and longer hours are some examples of changes that would make teaching less attractive to newcomers, thus driving up salaries.
In a similar vein, making it more difficult to become a teacher would also drive up salaries. That means increasing the length, difficulty or expense of the educational requirements necessary to become a teacher.
Another option might be to reduce the supply of “good” teachers. This could be done by making it easier for poorly performing teachers to be fired. Once a teacher is fired for poor performance, employers could identify him as a poor quality teacher, and those school districts who wanted quality could pay more for teachers with better records.
There are also things that can be done on the demand side of the equation. If governments were to commit to smaller class sizes, more teachers would be needed, putting upward pressure on salaries. However, the long-term effect on salaries would probably be marginal. As salaries rose, teaching would become more attractive to college students, creating an increase on the supply side of the equation, which would limit the effect of the higher demand. This might explain the national trend over the past decade. The national student/teacher ratio during the ten-year period ending in 2009 decreased from 16.1/1 to 15.3/1. The same period saw teachers’ average salaries increase about 2% (after adjustment for inflation) to $53,910.
This is all to say that if people think that teachers’ salaries are too low, the answer is not to make teaching more attractive to college students, as the Eggers/Calegari editorial suggests. The real answers are changes that teachers would find much less palatable.
The rhetoric floating around suggests that it is a travesty that teachers are not paid more. Maybe so, but at the end of the day, if faced with the changes that would significantly drive up salaries—more work, less security or more educational requirements—many teachers might just opt for the status quo.