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Jul 31, 2017

The shortages of the noble profession

Even the excellent 2017 report on teacher shortages in California stops short of asking a fundamental question: Why teacher salaries do not rise? В. Carver-Thomas and L. Darling-Hammond, the authors of the report, make a point that wage competition disadvantages poorer districts, because wealthier districts poach good teachers away from them. They more or less concentrate on the supply side of the equation, while also noting that enrollment in teacher preparation programs are at all times low. But why is the enrollment low? Why so few young people want to enter the profession?

In the end, the only way to ensure labor supply is to increase the wages, and improve working conditions. However, everyone acts as if it is impossible, and that there is some magic way of to increase the supply by offering shorter, and cheaper alternative teacher preparation programs. Note, no other industry thinks about their labor supply in a similar way. If you are short on software engineers, well, you either pay them more or import less expensive ones from abroad. Teacher imports do not work for a variety of reasons, but we do not even discuss the wage increases across the board.

Of course, districts would not compete for the same few qualified teachers, if their salaries would not depend on local property taxes. No one wants to see how bizarre really is the school funding system in the United States, and how, over the years, it contributed to residential segregation, as well as educational inequality. A politician, who would even bring up an idea of taking over the school finance by the State, will be signing his or her political death warrant.

I am not a politician, so I am bringing this up. I think, we need to be honest with the middle class. I know we all want something better for our own kids, this is why we bought these houses we cannot really afford, so our kids could go to better schools, and taught by better-paid teachers. However, in the long run, it is an unsustainable, self-defeating position. The other people’s kids are still here, they will become your neighbors, your employees, your colleagues. They deserve everything your child deserves. And yes, good education costs more money, and you should pay more taxes. We need to socialize education. In fact, teachers who work in more challenging social and economic localities should be paid more, not less.

Of course, we have been through this conversation before. There was a number of court cases against states, with mixed results. Again, in the end, court activism only gets you so far. We actually need to convince voters that equal finance of schools is the right thing to do.

Instead, we allow the talk about teaching as the noblest profession. What does it mean, exactly? Is it an appeal to work for less money, because, well, it is so noble? I think lawyers are a noble profession, and so are doctors and engineers. A software engineer is a darned noble thing to do, a calling, really. Yet we pay all those people as much as the market can bear, so there is no need to get all syrupy and sentimental. The discourse on teacher shortage will never change, if we as the profession will continue to feed it with sugar. We help perpetuate these distorting memes, because it feels good to be noble.

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