02 July, 2008

Name a job with excellent pay and benefits!

Did you name "schoolteacher"? If so, you likely won't sympathize with the following email I just sent to a right-of-center science writer. Names and references censored to protect the guilty, but if you work hard enough you can probably find them.

Dear Mr. &mdash,

I've read a lot of your work. I've nearly finished &mdash, which is quite well written. I've ordered — for our university library, and plan to read it next. Very nice stuff!

However, I don't always follow your logic. For example, you wrote in yesterday's [weblog]: "Teaching's a pretty neat job: excellent pay, super vacations & benefits, wellnigh-total job security, union armed with thermonuclear weapons, their very own Department in the feddle gummint." And that was one of the nicer things you wrote about teachers.

Excellent pay? Super vacations and benefits?

My standard is this: "excellent" pay means that an individual could comfortably support a reasonable-sized family (say, oneself, one's spouse, 2-3 kids) on the one income. This all hinges on your choice of the word "excellent".

Reflecting on my own experience, I would not have been able to support my family of three children using only the salary I earned as a high school teacher. The benefits weren't bad, but neither were they "excellent". I've known pharmaceutical sales representatives with far, far better benefits than even the best schoolteacher: aside from the 401(k) option, the health insurance, etc., add in free gas for the most part, including for personal use; free high-speed internet at home, including for personal use; free cell phone, including for personal use;... need I go on?

Teachers, by contrast, have to buy many of the materials that they need for the classroom. I paid from my own pocket for the posters I hung in my classroom. Some twerp ruined them with spitballs.

Suppose this were any other sector of the economy. A company should not, as a first resort, import cheap, foreign labor to fill desperately-needed positions. Rather, it ought to increase salaries and benefits to make the job more attractive to qualified candidates. The same would be true if a business lacked employees in critical positions needing a special certification to do their jobs. Haven't you & others written this on [your weblog]?

An increasing number of states find themselves in this position. They cannot attract enough candidates to teach math and science. They resort to hiring uncertified teachers, often unqualified teachers, on the condition that these teachers then obtain certification. They are also importing an increasing number of immigrants to teach in areas of need. The Raleigh News and Observer reported a few years ago that North Carolina needed 11,000 new, certified teachers, but graduated 3,000 that year. In 2007, they reported that the number had grown to 4,000 new certified teachers, still far below the need. Put together baby boomer retirement, the ~50% attrition rate over 5 years for new teachers, and this shortage, and things start to look pretty bad.

I know of no state where there is a surplus of math and science teachers. Maybe there is one; I just don't know of one. Seeing as how the starting salary is quite often less than $30,000 even with an advanced degree, and that many students' parents treat teachers with at best indifference, more likely contempt, anyone who is NOT mediocre in math and science would be either a fool or a saint to take the job.

High school football coaches in my area, by contrast, can hope to make upwards of $80,000. (Hattiesburg American, June 1, 2008) Coaches can and do expel players who don't follow the rules, who misbehave, or who fail to perform. Teachers have to put up with them day in, day out.

I used to believe in the power of the free market to move prices to a point where they would reflect the needs of an economy and reflect the supply and demand equation. It strains credulity, however, to conclude that football coaches are that much more important to the economy, and in much smaller supply, than math and science teachers. It likewise strains credulity to conclude that pharmaceutical sales reps are that much more important to the economy, and in much smaller supply, than math and science teachers.

What makes more sense is that pharmaceutical reps can rely on their companies to raise prices. Football coaches can rely on their teams to attract high ticket sales. Math and science schoolteachers have to rely on the generosity and goodwill of the American taxpayer, many of whom dismiss them as already having neat jobs with "excellent" pay and benefits.

I apologize for the long email. I tried to cut the fat.

john perry

1 comment:

countably said...

I consider myself right of center, & I certainly agree here.

I think I'm someone who would love to teach high school mathematics, and truly I think I would set out to do so if it weren't for the fact that I also intend to have a family.

My silly & likely thoughtless fix: don't worry about computers in the classroom, cut all the excessive sports spending, reduce your classrooms to just chalk and black board, rethink the whole textbook thing (further & further out on a ledge..), take all that money saved and make teacher salary something livable & hey, maybe even something a young undergrad like me will be able to pick over other options!

Such a move is essential for a healthy future for our country, and it should have been done a long time ago.