Tuesday, March 08, 2011

On the Markets for Teachers

I was watching John Stewart interview Diane Ravitch on the current attacks on teachers and especially their unions. She pointed out that teachers in the United States are demoralized. Being the focus of so many people's anger does tend to do that to you. Just ask the "welfare queens" of the 1990s.

This leads to a further question: How would a young person still at school or in college think about a possible career as a teacher? Does it sound like a fun field to enter, given that one needs a college degree (with the associated financial cost) to get in? Does it look as good now as it did, say, a five years ago?

The answer must on the whole be no. The way one picks an occupation depends on both financial factors such as the salary and the retirement benefits, on the characteristics of the work, including the hours demanded and on the intrinsic interest a person has in a particular field*. If you lower both the financial benefits AND the reputation of an occupation, you are going to get fewer applicants in the long run, the "long run" being a time period long enough for people to get trained for the job.

It's quite possible that the current unemployment levels would let states cut back teacher compensation without affecting the numbers of teachers who are willing to work right now. But this is not the same thing as guaranteeing enough well-educated teachers in the longer run.

I keep reading about the short working days and long summer vacations of the teachers, without hearing how that is part of the overall package of the job and one of the reasons that teaching, a college-based occupation, doesn't have higher monetary pay. The flexibility is part of the pay package.

Yet all the comparisons of teachers to other kinds of workers I hear completely omit that college degree part of the comparison. The alternatives future teachers have are those of other college graduates. And the less pleasant we make teaching the fewer college graduates will wish to enter it.
*This also applies to jobs such as fire-fighting. The dangers of the job are counteracted by parts of the package: early retirement age and good pension benefits. If those are cut then fewer people will wish to enter the field because the danger aspect remains unchanged.