(Guest post by Greg Forster)
On NRO yesterday, David Freddoso, author of The Case Against Barack Obama, launched a broadside against Obama as a faux education reformer. I have no interest in dissecting the details of Obama’s record on education, but Freddoso’s line of attack on the subject of teacher pay seems to me to miss the point.
Freddoso begins by quoting Obama asserting that schools in a Chicago neighborhood were closing early because the district couldn’t afford to pay teachers for a full day. Freddoso notes that teachers in that neighborhood are paid an average of $83,000; more than a quarter of them make over $100,000. (These figures don’t include administrators, who make even more.) Somehow, Obama managed not to mention this when bemoaning the district’s inability to pay for a full school day.
Freddoso may well be right about what’s happening that particular district; I don’t know. However, he goes on to build a more general case that Chicago teachers citywide are making big bucks while the system destroys children’s lives, and therefore Obama’s close alliance with the Chicago teachers’ union is similar in kind to his alliances with Tony Rezko, the Chicago machine, and other practitioners of “systemic corruption.”
I certainly agree with Freddoso that the government school monopoly, in Chicago as everywhere else, consumes large quantities of taxpayer money while destroying children’s lives. I’ll also agree that the teachers’ unions bear a lot of the blame. But is the size of teacher salaries a serious problem?
Freddoso says the entry level salary for a Chicago teacher is $43,702 plus $3,059 in pension contributions. Is that really so much, considering that 1) Chicago is an urban area, where the cost of living will be high, and 2) teachers have to have a college degree and specialized training in order to enter the profession?
Freddoso goes on to note that once these starting Chicago teachers gain four years’ experience, they’ll make $60,000, not including increases for additional education credentials. Since the large majority of teachers do pursue (educationally worthless) additional credentials in order to get these “pay for paper” salary increases, it would be good to know how much those salary increases are worth in Chicago. But setting aside that question, given that the empirical evidence suggests teachers get significantly more effective in their first few years, a bump up to $60,000 doesn’t seem all that bad (remembering again that we’re in an urban area).
In short, while teachers in Chicago – like teachers nationwide – are certainly paid well, they aren’t benefitting from “systemic corruption” a la Tony Rezko or the disgraced management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the “Friends of Angelo” at Countrywide, all of whom are connected to Obama.
Yet Freddoso writes about teacher pay as though being a teacher is some sort of scam. “Chicago teachers have terriffic pay and hours, and summer vacations,” and we should ask whether Obama’s link to the Chicago teachers’ union is “corrupting,” since this link is “part of a much braoder pattern that characterizes his political career, as with his backing of Chicago’s machine bosses, his sponsorship of legislation and earmarks to help such donors as Tony Rezko, and his support for special-interest subsidies in Washington.”
Freddoso is right that in addition to salary, teachers enjoy extremely strong job protection and shorter work hours, and this should be factored in when we consider whether or not they are “underpaid.” Still, it’s hardly fair to lump them in with Tony Rezko. Moreover, if the issue is not per se whether teachers are well paid, but accountability for the use of taxpayer funds (as the “corruption” meme suggests), then teachers’ job security and summer vacations don’t seem very relevant.
The real problem with teacher pay is not size, but technique. That is, it’s not primarily how much we pay, but how we pay. Teachers in the U.S. aren’t paid like professionals, they’re paid on a factory worker scale, with ability and performance totally unrelated to compensation. (Even calling this a “factory worker” scale is unfair to factory workers, since many factories have now adopted some reforms to the old pre-globalization pay system.) And it’s this pay structure, not the amount we pay, that’s the real problem. The system is designed to attract the lowest performers – since high performers can always earn more elsewhere while low performers always earn more by becoming teachers.
Freddoso mentions the subject of merit pay in passing, but only so he can assert that, on account of his alliance with the union, Obama’s merit pay plan is a toothless tiger. Whether it is or it isn’t, merit pay is a much more important issue than pay levels. If pay were tied to performance, high teacher salaries would be good – in fact, given the large role that teacher quality has been shown to play in student outcomes, if pay (and hiring) were linked to performance I would say the current pay levels would be too low.
Having said I would steer clear of evaluating his record as a whole, I will note that Obama’s openly supporting merit pay represents real progress, even if we agree with Freddoso that this support is only for show. It’s more of a show than any previous Democratic nominee has made, if I’m not mistaken (though I don’t trust my memory too far on this). Obama was actually booed by the NEA when he mentioned his views on differential pay during his speech accepting their endorsement. He didn’t have to mention teacher pay reform in his endorsement acceptance, but he did. That counts for something.
It’s also worth mentioning that the unions benefit far more than individual teachers from the direction the system has been moving in. Over the past few decades, while teacher salaries have stagnated, the number of teachers hired by the system has soared. That’s a mixed bag for teachers – it presumably means less work for each teacher, but it also exerts downard pressure on salaries. However, it puts big bucks in the unions’ pockets, with no real downside for them.
If I had to guess, I’d say Freddoso is overreacting against the widespread claim that teachers are “underpaid.” Since teachers are in fact well paid, this myth certainly does grate on anyone who knows the facts – especially so since this myth is even more obviously at odds with the facts than most education myths, and yet (or perhaps I should say “and therefore”) challenging it tends to produce an especially nasty and vicious response.
But let’s not get drawn into the opposite error. As Martin Luther is said to have said, if a man falls off his horse on the left side, the next time he rides he’ll fall off on the right side. Teachers aren’t paid too little or too much – they’re paid the wrong way. The problem here isn’t teachers, it’s unions.