Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why do we pay teachers for advanced degrees?

First, to all of my liberal, union-friendly (and union-employed) friends and acquaintances-- please don't hate me. I'm an equal-opportunity skeptic; I'm skeptical of everything from homeopathy and astrology to fair-trade coffee and the power of unions to improve society.

So, Max in the comments to my previous post says:
1. Public employees in Massachusetts make LESS (total pay and benefits) than private employees with comparable education. The same is true is Wisconsin. You can look it up.

2. No "public good" for higher than average wages? Huh? Isn't that PRECISELY the way you attract good people to do important teach your children? Back to Finland: one crucial way they took an average educational system (as it was in the 1960s and 1970s) and made it the best (as it is now) was to dramatically raise the pay of teachers. That attracted lots of the best the ones who in the United States go right to law school or business school so they can become investment bankers.

Why the heck wouldn't you want to pay people who perform absolutely essential jobs a top wage?
Is there any research showing that teachers with more education (beyond a basic teaching degree) are better at educating students? All the research I've run across says that advanced degrees don't matter.

As for paying people who perform absolutely essential jobs more: I completely agree, as long as they actually do a good job. We have been paying teachers more and more and yet we're not seeing better results. We have run the experiment of throwing money at underperforming schools, but money doesn't work. Listening to a recent podcast from the Center for American Progress (CAP is a progressive think-tank) drove that point home for me (podcast here).

By the way: I can think of a lot of things that are MORE essential than learning where the private sector seems to do a good job with non-unionized workers. Starting with the food and shelter industries.

One of the things that drove me nuts working at UMass in a unionized position was that my job performance didn't affect how much I was paid, or what benefits I got, one iota. Salary was based on years of service, and the union, while I was there, was actively trying to DEFEAT a pay-for-performance proposal.

Maybe I'm weird expecting that if I do a good job I'll be paid more. Wouldn't we get better teachers if we paid them more when they did a great job?

I think employees should have the right to organize themselves to demand better wages and working conditions. But I don't think it is right that most public employees in Massachusetts must, by law, be unionized.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why are teachers unionized?

Maybe I should ask: "why do we require that the people who teach our children in public schools pay union dues?"

Don't get me wrong-- I think teachers should be free to join whatever organization they want.

But why do we REQUIRE union membership (or at least payment of union dues) to teach in the public schools?

Do we think teachers are too dumb to negotiate their own salary?

Do we think that school boards and principals and superintendents will trick teachers out of fair salaries and benefits?

Unions are supposed to improve working conditions and get better salaries and benefits for their members, and there is a "free rider" problem if membership is voluntary-- nothing but Massachusetts State Law stops somebody from deciding NOT to pay for a union that is negotiating for everybody.

So it is obvious why unions and unionized workers like laws that require employees to participate in collective bargaining agreements. They get better working conditions and higher salaries and benefits!

I can see the 'public good' angle for better working conditions; working conditions for people in slaughterhouses in 1910 really were terrible, and those terrible working conditions caused external costs that weren't paid by the slaughterhouses (like sick or injured workers that had reduced life expectancies). Working conditions for teachers in 2011 everywhere besides inner-city schools seem pretty good to me, though, and I doubt they'd be worse if the teachers' union disappeared.

I can't see any public good angle for higher-than-average wages and benefits. And if you disagree and think teachers are overworked and underpaid and have to put up with tyrannical bosses and bad working conditions... then tell me again why teachers are forced to pay union dues? Wouldn't they be better off just keeping all that union dues money for themselves?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why argue over trivia?

Scott Sumner has a very interesting take on why we spend so much time arguing over the little stuff and ignoring the big stuff:
I would like to argue that most of the really important public policy issues are not even part of the ongoing debate in the press. Here are some examples:

1. The huge rise in occupational licensing.

2. The huge rise in people incarcerated in the war on drugs, and also the scandalous reluctance of doctors to prescribe adequate pain medication (also due to the war on drugs.)

3. The need for more legal immigration.

4. The need to replace taxes on capital with progressive consumption taxes.

5. Local zoning rules that prevent dense development.

6. Tax exemptions for mortgage interest and health insurance.

These 6 policy failures impose enormous damage on the country, far more than the issues typically discussed on the evening news. Why aren’t they discussed? I would argue that it is partly because the disagreements tend to break down on values, not ideology. Most idealistic intellectuals agree with me on all of these issues. They are not issues that divide the left and the right. It’s also true that most real world politicians agree on these issues. However their views are exactly the opposite of the views of intellectuals. Hence there is no “policy debate” in either the political or intellectual arenas, and hence no “fight” for the media to report. They become invisible issues.
I've written about a few of those things in the past. Even local news seems to focus on "small in the grand scheme of things" issues. For example, the school Superintendent search has dominated local news for the last month or two. But how important is the Superintendent in the grand scheme of things? It seems to me we like to think that a Wise and Strong Leader will Lead Us to the Land of Milk and Honey, but in reality how our kids do in school is really much more a function of how we treat them at home than who is pushing pencils in the head office.

Yeah, yeah, I'm probably underestimating the impact a great superintendent can have on a school district. But in all the opinion pieces I've seen in the local news about the superintendent search I don't recall seeing even one person explaining exactly HOW a great superintendent might vastly improve the screwed-up school system we're stuck with...