Posted by: bkivey | 22 November 2010

Instruments of Mass Instruction

The 14 November edition of the local fish wrap published an article by Paul Kihn and Matt Miller based on a report by McKinsey & Company dealing with improving the quality of candidates teaching in public schools. The article explicates one of the unpleasant realities of College of Education graduates: they are often from the bottom third, in terms of standardized test scores, of the pool of college students. To take one example, Montclair State University compared average SAT scores of incoming freshman for the Class of 2010 (Fall 2006). The combined scores for selected colleges were: College of Education and Human Service – 1036, College of Humanities – 1077, College of the Arts – 1084, College of Science – 1091.

While noting that the academic acumen of education degree holders has been declining for decades, the authors cite the opening of previously closed career fields to women and minorities as a major contributing factor. As institutional barriers to employment have come down, the teaching profession has had to compete with other career fields for the same small group of people populating the right-hand side of the normal curve and come up wanting. The article cites low pay, lack of selectivity, and low social standing as the primary reasons for the lack of academic high-achievers in teaching.

The low pay argument is a shibboleth of teacher’s unions and education advocates and one that people who do not work for government find increasingly tiresome. Whether employed publically or privately, salary is only a part of most folks compensation package. Out of curiosity, I decided to compare two theoretical people, both 2010 graduates of a state university and both working in Beaverton, Oregon. One person has a BA in primary school education with a state teaching certificate and teaches fifth grade, the other holds a BS in mechanical engineering and has passed the EIT (engineer-in-training) exam.

Entering the data at, a website that aggregates compensation data from worker-reported pay information in a given area, the median salary for the teacher is about $35,000. As a public employees, teachers are eligible for health and dental insurance coverage for themselves and their dependents at no cost (Oregon is the only state that offers this), which for an individual comes to about $11,000 annually; more if dependents are covered. The state also contributes 6% of salary to PERS, the state pension program, again, at no cost to the employee. So far the total compensation package is nearing $50,000, but there’s more. Public school teachers are eligible for fully paid basic life insurance, 8 hours of sick leave per month with no maximum, as well as 9 paid holidays and 24 hours of personal leave per year. In Oregon the average work year for a teacher is 200 days, so the total compensation package comes to somewhere in the low $50’s. Not exactly lawyer money, but hardly starvation level. I can think of several jobs requiring a four-year degree that pay a lot less and don’t have nearly as generous a benefit package.  

As for the engineer, they can expect a median salary of about $51,000. Assuming benefits are offered, most employers require an employee contribution for medical and dental insurance, usually between 30 and 50 percent of the premium. The most generous benefit package I’ve had offered six paid holidays, five vacation days per year and four hours of sick leave per month, both capped. I worked for one employer that would match a defined-contribution plan, but these days employer contributions are 50% or less or non-existent. And you can expect to work at least 250 days annually. So it looks like our hypothetical new engineer’s compensation package might be in the mid-$60’s. That’s significantly more than the teacher, so if someone is only interested in earning potential and they have the aptitude and  intellectual horsepower, they may well choose a technical degree.

It’s worth pointing out that if one enter’s an apprenticeship in the skilled trades they can very likely be earning as much or more than the teacher in four years, and those jobs aren’t going to China or India.

The author’s spotlight on lack of selectivity in teacher training programs and lack of social standing of the profession go hand in hand. Part of the reason for the education specialist’s perceived social inferiority is that colleges of education are not known for their academic rigor. While I know that there are smart teachers out there, their schools aren’t doing them any favors by lowering the bar on admission standards.

In the article Messrs. Kihn and Miller compare US educator training and culture to that of South Korea, Singapore, and Finland while using those societies as models. Ignoring the fact those are three remarkably homogenous societies with a  much more deeply ingrained sense of national culture than the US and much higher degrees of government control of the economy, with Finland ranking 17 and South Korea 31 in the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom (Singapore ranks number 2, but try spitting on the sidewalk), the author’s solution to raising academic achievement among educators is to throw money at the problem. Their thinking is that by raising starting salaries and having government pay for school, people that might now choose other professions will instead elect to become teachers. They point out that Finland and Singapore fund education students in addition to paying stipends while students in the US ”  . . .  often must go into debt to attend education schools” And students in other majors don’t?

If the education profession really wanted to raise academic standards, then it seems reasonable that education schools need only raise their admission standards. That wouldn’t cost anything at all, and education students and graduates would gain instant credibility. Pay wouldn’t be affected, but if the profession could show that student performance was related to teacher ability, then they might reasonably ask for higher pay.

In the article the authors allude to one of the primary impediments to recruiting people of high academic achievement into the education ranks. They state Finland ” . . . grants teachers the kind of autonomy typically enjoyed by doctors in this country.” (I’m guessing those are doctors not beholden to government-run health care.) People don’t like to work with others looking over their shoulder, a dislike that grows stronger the higher the intelligence. Teaching is one of the most politicized professions in our society, requiring educators to trim their sails according to the political winds du jour. Almost everything a teacher does is regulated or dictated by others, from what they teach to how they teach it, even to what they can and cannot say in the classroom. Who needs it? Far better to enter a profession where one may work relatively unencumbered once competency has been established.



  1. nice post, and it is too bad it’s difficult to find good teachers (and pay them). I wonder if any of these schools offer total compensation statements, showing other perks of the job (time off or paid time off) that could possibly make up for lower salaries.

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