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The Cost of Teacher Competency

Copyright © 1998 by David E. Ross

As the November election draws closer, calls for standards of teacher competency grow louder. The candidates call for testing, higher standards, or more training for our public school teachers. At the same time, a worsening shortage of qualified teachers is forcing school boards to grant a growing number of emergency credentials to individuals who are not fully trained as teachers. Obviously, eliminating emergency credentials and raising the standards for becoming a teacher will not correct this shortage. Before we can see how to solve this problem, we need to see how it arose.

Early in this century — before laws prohibited gender discrimination in employment — most college-educated women could enter only two professions: teaching and nursing. Both became known as "woman's work". Lacking those anti-discrimination laws, these professions evolved into pay structures far lower than used to compensate other ("man's work") professions with equivalent requirements for education and preparation. Now, in the final third of the 20th century, college-educated women find a large choice of professional careers open to them. While discrimination has not been eliminated entirely and salary differentials still exist, broader career choices are diverting women away from teaching and nursing.

Most hospitals are not government-owned. With either corporate or non-profit boards, they generally do not answer directly to taxpayers. As choices diverted women away from low-paying nursing careers, hospitals addressed this shortage by raising nursing pay and reducing the ratio of nurses to patients, assigning tasks previously reserved for nurses to aides and orderlies. On the other hand, most schools are public, operated by the government and pressured by taxpayers to keep costs low. The voters have prevented schools from raising teacher salaries sufficiently to prevent a shortage of teachers, while parents will not allow aides, playground supervisors, and clerks to educate their children. The resulting shortage of teachers must thus be filled through the use of emergency or temporary credentials and waivers of competency.

I often hear — especially in reference to problems with the quality of education — that we cannot solve these problems by throwing money at them. But in a labor-intensive activity such as education, that is exactly what is required if qualified individuals are to be attracted into the teaching profession. Just look at the following comparison between teaching and a career in industry. The salary for an entry-level teacher was obtained from my local Oak Park Unified School District; the salary for an entry-level position (requiring a college degree) in industry was obtained from my employer's Web pages.

Teaching (with a clear credential) Industry
Education BA degree plus one year post-graduate work BA degree
On-the-Job Experience One year of student teaching None
Annual Salary $29,769 (step 1 of column A) $46,826 (midpoint within salary range)
Work Year 182 days (per California law) 235 days (52 weeks times 5 days per week, minus vacation and holidays)
Daily Rate $163.57 $199.26

Thus, although teachers generally get almost three months of vacation each year, their pay remains less than commensurate with the number of days they are at work. Why would any intelligent and talented individual — exactly the type we would want educating our children — choose a career so underpaid as teaching? No, I do not intend any insult against those excellent, dedicated teachers who did make that choice. I have known quite a few. Some had the outside resources to be financially secure despite low pay. Others — as do some who choose a life of religious service — decided that money is not as important as answering a calling. But as good teachers finally retire while student populations grow, we need new teachers. When a student graduates college owing $20,000 or more in student loans, chosing a teaching career in place of a position in industry that pays 21% more for time actually worked can be an unaffordable luxury.

We are trying to perpetuate our society "on the cheap". It will not work! As long as politicians declare that tax cuts have priority over education, their calls for higher standards smell of hypocrisy. No, I am not aiming my anger at school board members. In most states, the money available for school budgets is tightly controlled by the state legislatures. In California, local school budgets are substantially dictated by the "great school board in Sacramento", the 40 State Senators and 80 Assembly Members. When they do increase funding for public education, the money often has so many mandates attached that little is available for raises.

Yes, compentency is important. Standards should be high. But the well-educated individuals we need in the classrooms are smart enough to go where the money is. And the money is not in teaching.

Some states use the term certificate or license in place of credential.

11 August 1998

NOTE: For two four-year terms, I served as an elected member of the School Board of the Oak Park Unified School District, one of the finest school systems — public or private — in California.

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