The Teaching Profession and its Discontents
Being right in the throes of a huge debate on education right here in my own Chilean backyard, I have been afforded the unique opportunity to see the issue up close and personal. One of the core issues of the education debate is the waning quality of the instruction students receive, from pre-K all the way up through the University level. This problem, in my opinion, undoubtedly stems from the way the teaching profession is perceived within society; a variety of factors must prevail in order to alter the misperception of teachers and stem the tide of less-than-capable graduates flocking to the profession. It just so happens that I jotted down a few notes on the subject, in response to a debate on a buddy’s blog. Take a gander, and keep in mind that this is a take on the situation back in the US, but can be applied throughout (I’m planning on doing a separate,more relevant post on Chile’s current predicament):
“To touch on the question of how to effectively incentivize college students to pursue more lucrative and career-viable areas of study, I think the role of compensation is just one facet of a more complex solution. Numerous studies indicate (sorry, no link to primary material) that compensation as one part of the employee incentive structure holds less weight than others; primarily, social status of that profession, opportunities for professional growth, as well as perceived social and absolute economic impact. The often remarkable disparity between the status of one profession and its actual feedback (positive or negative) into the larger economy is certainly a cause for concern.
The most salient example that comes to mind is the incongruities of social status, compensation, and real economic impact between teachers and lawyers. In this case, the first two categories appear to be running contrary to the third: basically, lawyers and attorneys are exalted and enjoy premium salaries while their absolute impact on the larger economy is not comparable, and has even been dwindling in recent years due to industry saturation. However, due to the high regard of somebody accomplished in jurisprudence in the states, students continue to flock to this profession despite falling median wages, rising levels of law school tuition, and one of the highest industry unemployment rates in the country. Teachers, on the other hand, are often admonished for having wages which are union-based rather than merit-based, and do not enjoy such a lofty societal status (how many side-eyes have been given at any mention of a fellow student choosing to go into elementary education?). To boot, they are often held responsible for the widening education gap and America’s free-fall from the top of most international education rankings. Yet, the economic benefit they bring to society is immeasurable, as they are responsible for (and have so far done a good job in) cultivating our nation’s minds and in turn, fostering the human capital necessary for a healthy, thriving economy.
As a result, there is a major distortion in the allocation of capable, top-flight graduates to a profession which holds over-the-top status yet does much less for the real economy than its pay grade suggests (this notion can also be applied to parts of the financial services sector, particularly investment banking, which boasts a level of pay for analysts and managers which is questionable considering its real economic output in terms of value added to society, or lack thereof). However, in countries like Singapore, Finland, and South Korea, where unparalleled economic growth has come as a result of heavy investment in university and public education, teachers (in terms of purchasing power) are often paid upwards to 250% more than those in the US. Not only are they handsomely rewarded, but they are among the most respected members of society, along with doctors, engineers, public officials, etc. In turn, legions of top university graduates flock to the teaching profession, where competitiveness of the industry is on par with medical school admissions in America.
I think that public esteem alongside compensation vis-à-vis certain professions will help to rationalize a labor market which often does too much to allocate resources based on “difficulty level of education” rather than “its necessity within the larger economy”.
However, the question then becomes, how do we increase public esteem for professions that provide large economic benefits to society (e.g. teachers) in an attempt to rationalize the labor market?
In my opinion, the answer requires a mix of public policies, particularly in the form of public-private partnerships as a means of increasing government expenditure on education (this way, philanthropists can sleep at night knowing that they’ve given money to a homegrown cause that benefits the US, and the government can avoid being labeled as union-coddlers or communist central-planners, or whatever). America also is in dire need of a bona fide culture shift. A successful example of a pioneering organization on the policy front is Teach for America: not only is it causing a positive change in public sentiment towards the teaching profession, successfully landing intelligent graduates from some of our elite schools, but as a non-profit, TFA can pool resources dynamically both from federal funding as well as private donors.
Also, taking the steps necessary to ensure that achieving the requisite level of schooling or certification for each profession is not only affordable, but indicative of that profession’s economic worth. For example, raising the bar for prospective teachers, requiring higher credentials and passing of a test like the GRE, helps to vet out incapable candidates. On the other hand, the legal field is much more complicated because law schools really have little incentive to discontinue the rat race to the bottom. Despite the fact that median law school tuition is at its highest level in several decades, perpetuated by students seeking shelter from an uncertain job market and university aims to comply with ABA accreditation standards, ultimately making it less economically sensible to pursue with each passing day, the supply of students seems to be continually outpacing demand for lawyers.
All in all, pay those in a certain profession a salary which is comparable to their societal worth, which will ultimately increase competitiveness. I think that increased competitiveness will ultimately lead to higher regard.