What’s Wrong with Teacher Raises?

Should public-school teachers earn more? Sure. But if we’re going by the recent recommendation for a “Grand Bargain” from Hoover’s Eric Hanushek, we should pump the brakes. Because talking about increasing salaries for some teachers is ultimately not the primary conversation we should be having about America’s public schools. We’ve been talking about the history of teacher pay on the Tweeter and I’ll adapt some of the conversation here.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing me say it, but I’ll keep saying it anyway: Teachers are not the problem when it comes to school performance. Discussions about “merit pay” and “underperforming teachers” have long distracted attention from the main issue in America’s divided public-education system.

Historically, the first curve ball in teacher pay comes from our assumption that teachers have always received (relatively) low pay. Dr. Hanushek (and others) assume that teaching attracts high-quality candidates “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

But in the first half of the 1800s, teachers expected to make a lot of money. Famous teachers–mostly men, but some women too–would open entrepreneurial schools, usually based on some sort of proprietary method of teaching. They would try to attract tuition-paying families.

For example, the most famous teacher in the early 1800s, Joseph Lancaster, assumed that his teaching would make him rich. As he told his daughter in a letter from Boston on July 14, 1819, he would soon buy a “small estate for thee” because his teaching would make him “rich and independent.”

Lecture flyer 1

Lancaster still hoped to make a pile in 1834.

What happened? The low quality of the teaching was not the thing that drove down teacher pay. The uncomfortable historic truth is that teacher pay was driven down by the inclusion of low-income students in publicly available tuition-free schools.

Once tuition was taken out of the picture, public schools struggled to find ways to pay teachers enough. First they tried to get children to do the teaching for free. It didn’t work, because as soon as children got some teaching skills, they took paid jobs as teachers.

In the early 1800s, New York tried to solve this problem by FORCING children to teach for free until they were 21, pushing them into indentured servitude. (I know some teachers these days will say this sounds familiar…)

The problem historically has NOT been that most teachers have been willing to work for less. Rather, the problem has always been that governments—with good reason—wanted to provide education for all kids, regardless of their ability to pay.

That’s why Secretary DeVos’s recent pronouncements about public-school funding have been so grating, especially to historians.

Which gets us to Dr. Hanushek’s “Grand Bargain.” Historically, the bargain is flawed because it’s built on a faulty premise. Dr. Hanushek writes,

if the United States is to improve its schools, the available research indicates that the only feasible solution is to increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.

That’s just not the case. Historically and today, the most obvious way to improve schools has not been to “increase the overall effectiveness of our teachers.” That’s not a bad goal, obviously, but it distracts attention from the proper conversation we should be having. Namely, the most obvious place to start–if we want to make public schools more effective–has been and will be to increase the overall affluence of our students.

When it comes down to it, the problem with Dr. Hanushek’s approach is not in the details. Rather, it is in the big picture. Too many reformers–smart ones and not-so-smart ones alike–try to tweak schools in order to make society more fair and equitable. I appreciate their goal and share it.

But schools alone cannot fix society. Schools ARE society. If we want a fair society, we cannot tweak schools, we need to heal society.

Pay teachers more? Yes, for sure. That makes sense if we want to attract and retain high-quality candidates. But if our first goal is to improve society, we should start with the more fundamental problem.

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3 Comments

  1. Dr. Hanushek (and others) assume that teaching attracts high-quality candidates “for love of kids, for feeling of social purpose, or for what-have-you.”

    This is a mistake, as you point out.

    In the past, teaching attracted high quality candidates. But that was in an era where educated women have few good choices. Much has changed since then. The high quality people who used to go into teaching, now have more choices available. In the current job market, Hanushek could never find enough of the kind of teachers that he wants.

    But schools alone cannot fix society. Schools ARE society. If we want a fair society, we cannot tweak schools, we need to heal society.

    Yes, exactly. But that won’t be easy, in a society where 40% of the population are proud of their ignorance; a society that elected a buffoon as president.

    Reply
  2. Arthur Goldstein

     /  November 17, 2019

    Thank you for this. As someone who’s in the classroom each and every day, I’m amazed by all the self-appointed experts who preach over topics about which they know nothing. This is something I try to teach my high school students not to do. It’s common sense, in fact, which turns out to be the least common of all the senses.

    Reply
  1. Why Won’t This Myth about Teachers Go Away? | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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