Average pay gets average teachers

Smart women now have lots of career opportunities, which has lowered the quality of the teaching force. That’s the conventional wisdom, but is it true? Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Postrel analyzes a study of teachers’ aptitude scores (used as a measure of teacher quality). From 1964 to 2000, there was little change in teachers’ scores.

But averages hide the real story. The best female students — those whose test scores put them in the top 10 percent of their high school classes — are much less likely to become teachers today.

“Whereas close to 20 percent of females in the top decile in 1964 chose teaching as a profession,” making it their top choice, the economists write, “only 3.7 percent of top decile females were teaching in 1992,” making teachers about as common as lawyers in this group.

So the chances of getting a really smart teacher have gone down substantially. In 1964, more than one out of five young female teachers came from the top 10 percent of their high school classes. By 2000, that number had dropped to just over one in 10.

The average has stayed about the same because schools aren’t hiring as many teachers whose scores ranked at the very bottom of their high school classes. Teachers aren’t exactly getting worse. They’re getting more consistently mediocre.

Another study looks at the effect of unionization on compressing the range of teacher pay: All teachers earn about the same, regardless of their abilities.

Are women from top colleges leaving teaching because of the “pull” of better pay elsewhere or the “push” of reduced earnings at the top of teaching?

To their surprise, they find that wage compression explains a huge 80 percent of the change. If women from top colleges still earned a premium as teachers, a lot more would go into teaching.

“Women who went to a top 5 percent college earned about a 50 percent pay premium in the 1960’s and earn about the same as other teachers today,” Mr. Leigh said. “By comparison, somebody who went to a bottom 25 percent college earned about 28 percent below the average teacher in the 1960’s, and they have the earnings of about the average teacher today.”

In hiring teachers, we get what we pay for: average quality at average wages.


About Joanne


  1. Doesn’t that assume that the smartest (or best test takers, whichever) inherently will be the best teachers?

    Doesn’t necessarily follow…


  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Well, I’ve had plenty of experience with having my child taught by rather dim people, so I wouldn’t mind trying the experiment of hiring smarter teachers. Somehow I doubt that it would hurt. Besides, your point would fatally undermine the rationale for higher teacher pay, since there would be no need for schools to compete with other employers for the services of high academic performers.

  3. “If women from top colleges still earned a premium as teachers, a lot more would go into teaching.” Is this really true? Talented people, male or female, expect a certain amount of respect and autonomy in their work, as well as appropriate compensation. As long as the current kind of administrators dominate the public schools, they are not likely to get either.

  4. “Teachers aren’t exactly getting worse. They’re getting more consistently mediocre.”

    Is this good or bad?

  5. Steve,
    Great post.

    But they don’t know they will be treated like pond scum until AFTER they are hired. The can check likely salary before they chose a major.

  6. JimInNOVA says:

    With the pay as it is, I’m amazed that even that many top students are going into teaching. Let’s face it, most of those top students can probably get a PhD and make 4-5 times as much money plus the chance at tenure and the added prestige of being a college professor. You would have to be really dedicated to teaching to pass that up, or another equally lucretive career, in favor of being treated poorly for low pay.

  7. “…they don’t know they will be treated like pond scum until AFTER they are hired..”

    Well, but we’re talking about the *smart* ones. Surely at least half of them or so are well-read enough to see what’s going on.

    Plus, they saw how their *own* teachers were treated in high school…

  8. I graduated in the upper top 10% of my high school class. I didn’t go into teaching immediately (had a couple of other careers first). I went into the profession knowing fully what was involved in terms of negatives. I have been pleasantly surprised by all the positives. For every nasty, bullying parent, I also get a wonderful, supportive parent. For every child who shows up as a mug shot on the evening news, far more are out there doing wonderful things. This week (spring break) a few of my procrastinators are emailing me their research papers. The emails are hilarious.

    FWIW, I don’t see teaching at the college level as all that great. The presige/pay is much better, true, but at the HS level I can publish without any pressure to do so, so I’m freer to focus on my teaching and students during the school year, then on my writing during the summer. This works pretty well for me.

  9. Steve LaBonne says:

    And I would add what Rita was too modest to add: obviously we _do_, very much, need smart people like her as teachers.

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    Jim, professors at many small liberal arts colleges are paid LESS than many public school teachers. That is certainly true in upstate NY where I used to live; I knew professors at Siena, a very solid Franciscan college in Albany with particularly impressive science deparetments, and many _full professors_ there didn’t even make the _median_ salary for public school teachers in the area, which at the time (almost 10 years ago)was around $55,000. (Yes, I know that teachers in many other parts of the country aren’t nearly so well paid.)

  11. I have very little experience in the classroom but what little experience I have has been varied. I have taught in two large High Schools and the administration made all of the difference. At one of the schools the Vice-Principal told me that someone in the room would have the power and it better be me. Don’t ever argue with the students just ask once and if that was not enough send the kids to him. After the first day, when I sent about 3 kids to him, I never had another problem. Vice-Principal Harper was very hands-off with what the teachers taught but he was very big on structure and discipline.

    At the other high school there was zero administrative support and the kids knew it. I taught one year there and I left. Not surprisingly, the teachers at the school with administrative support seemed a lot happier and actually seemed to enjoy teaching.

  12. Mad Scientist says:

    Striving for Mediocrity

    What does that sound like?

  13. So we’re hiring average teachers to work with average kids. What’s the problem, exactly? Average folks got to live too.

  14. D. Cooper says:

    Just a comment to Jim regarding college professors pay … I’ve got a good friend whose son has a PhD from Cornell and is now a professor at Princton. He also has a law degree from U. of Chicago and did his undergraduate work at Williams. He’s in his late 30’s and is published as of recently. His does not make ‘yet’ the kind of money a teacher in public education would make. Add to that, that he’s at a rather prestigous Ivy League school. Professors in smaller colleges and community colleses would I assume do worse. Eventually some professors end up doing extremely well, but over all are the exception.

    Another point I’d make regarding smarter people making better teachers. Control is the name of the game. If you can’t get them to listen to you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got to say. Given two teachers who can ‘hold’ their attention, I’ll take the smarter one. But, much of what we teach is not rocket science, and you need to be well versed in your subject area, but after that, you need to be a ‘showman’ (or showperson). I’ve seen many a brainiac eaten alive by a class of ‘darlings’. When most teachers fail, it has very little to do with knowledge of subject matter…. it’s three basic things…discipline, discipline, and discipline.

  15. Jeez, Steve, I’m blushing.

  16. Mad Scientist says:

    Well, the kid is obviously in one of the Liberal Arts. StartingEngineering and Scientific PhD professors are making close (to within +/- 10%) to what their industrial counterparts are.

    It all depends upon which field you are in.

  17. PJ/Maryland says:

    So we’re hiring average teachers to work with average kids. What’s the problem, exactly? Average folks got to live too.

    Laura, I was thinking about this. Certainly things weren’t perfect in the 60s, but the public schools seemed to work better. I know D. Cooper is always saying it’s society that’s changed (or TV, at least), but here’s a concrete example of a significant shift in the composition of the teaching workforce.

    I wonder if the problem with cutting back on the “smarter” teachers (those with higher test scores, really) somehow makes teaching harder for everyone. For example, maybe smarter teachers are the ones who first notice problems (eg, not enough support from new principal) and so problems get fixed faster? Or maybe they find ways to teach new material, and the average teachers then can follow their example? Or is there something about students’ learning process that they do much better when one or more of their teachers is above average?

    Just some thoughts; I don’t think we understand the learning process well enough to do more than speculate. (Though we could probably put together a pretty good research project here at JJ.com… I think we’d only need a couple of million dollars to get started…)

  18. Mad Scientist says:

    I think the smarter ones see that one of the major causes of the problem is the administration. Add to that the unwillingness of the administration to back up teachers, or to fight the union to make the necessary changes and the smart ones say “what the hell” and leave.

    In addition, the sue-happy parents have the districts running scared. One parental threat, either real or imagines, will cause a district to cave.

  19. I was born in 1960 and graduated from high school in 1978. I had some really smart teachers and some really dumb ones. My civics teacher was great. My senior English teacher thought “Lord” was Tennyson’s middle name – you know, “Alfred, Lord Tennyson” – she called him “Alfred Lord”. But my 10th grade English teacher did a 6 weeks course on writing a paragraph that I draw on to this day. (OK, maybe not in my comments here.) I think probably most people get a mixture of good, average, and poor teachers, mostly average, which is pretty much representative of the kind of people we deal with all our lives.

  20. PJ — a lot more students were kicked out of school in the 60’s, or were expected to drop out and get their GED. I think that’s a factor.

    I think that teachers control classrooms based on management skills, personality, and backup from administration. If you’re a control freak, kids tend to respond to that by trying to get some of that control back. That’s the sort of thing you’re born with; they can’t teach you to have the right personality in ed. school. I get away with a lot just by being cheerful, believe it or not. I think teachers who are successful are also great at making snap decisions — this is where intelligence comes in. Let’s face it, after you’ve taught Romeo & Juliet for the 5th time, you’d have to be a moron not to know it pretty well (the Alfred Lords of the world obviously being morons). But great teachers are able to decide, within seconds of that class coming in the door, whether the planned activity for the day is going to fly or not. For example, if there’s been a fight at lunch, the students coming in to my room afterwards are just never going to settle down enough to do a collaborative activity. An intelligent teacher immediately switches to a 15 or 20 minute writing assignment before doing something collaborative. A mediocre teacher sticks with her plan and wonders why it’s a disaster today when it worked so well last year. This is the sort of ability that nobody ever knows about or sees and can’t be tested, assessed, or put in a portfolio.

  21. Tim from Texas says:

    The schools in the fifties,sixties,and seventies
    were not in any form or fashion better.That the good old days were somehow better is just a myth.

    The nation was booooooming. whether one graduated
    from high schoolor dropped out in the 7th,8th,
    9th,10th,or11th grade,got a GED or not, he or she
    could walk right out of school and find a good
    paying job unless the person was a complete moran
    and even most of those found jobs as well.

    Now, the situation has drastically changed, which
    has put our ed. system into a fishbowl. In many
    ways many of our schools are doing a better job
    now and others are certainly trying to find ways
    to do well. In addition, society is making them
    contend with considerably more now.

    We need to throw the tvs into the dumpsters, quit
    going to the movies,that is to say, quit watching
    and listenig to those things we already know. It’s mind numbing, especially to the young. We need to go out and make them a part of our lives,
    socially, emotionally, playfully,and all things
    that make up a viable community. We’ve doped them
    uncorraled them, shut our blinds down tight even
    throuhout the day,put tvs,and electronics,and junk food in front of while at home and when out
    it’s to the movies and shopping and more sodas and junk food on the way there, there, and on the
    back home as well. and on top of it all we allow
    them to become seep deprived as well and call the
    Add something symdrom and shove drugs into them.

    What in hell are we expecting with all of that.
    If were not carefull the entire country will
    become a walmart-moviehouse—-ugly,dirty with
    prefabbed walls and all–a shambles would be to
    good a name for it.

  22. D. Cooper says:

    I think T from T has endorsed my plastic mold theory. The mold hasn’t changed that much over the years, but the plastic we’re pouring in certainly has.

    Where do you suppose some kid today gets the ‘pair’ to tell a teacher to ‘F— off” ? Or throw a can of soda at her? (see the ‘Punching the teacher’ thread) Anyone else recall this happening 35 or 40 years ago? I don’t.