On Youthful Dreams, the Hour of Our Death and Teacher Pay

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by Kate Walsh, NCTQ President

Over on the NCTQ website, the votes keep coming in for who readers think won our recent teacher pay debate, "Are Teachers Underpaid," between economists and all-around good sports Larry Mishel and Mike Podgursky. At this writing, Mishel enjoys a good lead (50%) over Podgursky (43%)--contrary to one reader's assumption that asking our readers to vote would be analogous to "asking for input on President Bush's performance at the Republican National Convention." No matter which way the final vote tally comes out, given that this little amateur competition didn't block multiple votes from the same computer (a problem that's going to be rectified the next time we do this), it would probably not be too wise to attach much meaning to any of the results.

Most readers seemed to throw up their hands over which of Mishel's or Podgursky's government surveys accurately captures the truth about teacher pay. Readers instead preferred just to debate the value of teachers in society, a really unanswerable question. One zealous reader went so far as to claim that teachers are "more important than lawyers and doctors." On lawyers, the reader might have had me, but as for doctors, I'm still in the "if-you've-got-your-health-you've-got-everything" camp--perhaps a reflection of my age.

A number of readers took exception to Mishel's assertion that summers off should not be construed as an actual benefit. One reader wrote: "Does Mr. Mishel have a close family member in the teaching profession? It is difficult to see how an unbiased researcher could otherwise make white black i.e. suggest that three months of complete discretionary time a year is somehow a disadvantage instead of a major selling point."

On the other hand, it was also clear that Podgursky's unwillingness to count hours worked at home raised a few hackles. One reader put it bluntly: "Podgursky chooses to totally ignore work done by teachers at home simply because he is unable to quantify it." Given that teachers are generally not assigned real offices like the rest of us, making it more likely that teachers compared to other professions would tend to work from home over school, the reader has a good point. Many readers thought the debate underscored the need for merit pay--that some teachers are underpaid and some are not. Some teachers work long hours; some do not. Absent a compensation system that can account for these differences, there will always be grossly underpaid and overpaid teachers.

Not one for nuance, NEA President Reg Weaver is at odds with our readership, once again issuing a call for across-the-board pay increases in the course of releasing the NEA's annual report on average salary data. Clearly no apostle of market economics, Weaver was especially adamant that new teachers should get no less than $40,000 per year, no matter where they live. The NEA is in danger of isolating itself on teacher pay, particularly merit pay, given increasingly receptive public support for the idea. The union though appears prepared to fight down to the last man.

Finally, one reader of the "Square-Off" debate offered perhaps the most insightful response to the debate. The reader questioned the importance of average salary in attracting individuals to the profession, hypothesizing that "the possibility of earning very well at the top end is what attracts many to a profession," and rightly pointing out that many doctors and lawyers don't actually earn that much money. It's the fact that some do that entices so many people into those professions. The writer went on to contrast medicine and law with "a system in which tenure happens very early, seniority results in modest increases in salary, and merit is largely unrewarded monetarily. In such a system, there can be no 'rainmakers,'Raising the average pay 20 percent may attract some more people, but, under this system, folks who want the chance of being recognized monetarily and socially as being in the top of their profession will always have to look elsewhere."

Well said. There's a strong case to be made that it is the very existence of an intractable pay ceiling--no matter whether it is 7 or 10 feet high--that turns so much talent away. A profession that fails to feed our youthful fantasies about our own future worth may be missing a good bet. Maybe the existence of a ceiling isn't all that different from knowing the time and date you're going to die; who really wants to know that? Who really wants to confront the likelihood at the age of 25 or 30 that on many levels our lives that stretch out before us might not end up being extraordinary? While pay, thankfully, is unimportant to a lot of people, few are immune to either its symbolic significance or its pragmatic implications for our own futures. Even though most of us are unlikely to beat the law of averages, a lot of us--especially our young selves--like to think we will.