The Kenneth and Anne Griffin Foundation sponsored a recent Chicago gathering on education and perhaps the most provocative notion was a fleeting, parenthetical query by a Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Why is it that really good teachers don't make a whole lot more money, asked Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. After all, the great ones so obviously have a significant impact on individual lives.
Think of all the folks who make tons of dough and arguably add virtually nothing productive to society. Think of all those with second, or third, homes, and every creature comfort, and not the slightest retirement worry, who might strain mightily to answer the question, "How is the world better because of what you do for a living?"
But most of us can probably think of a teacher who has changed lives, maybe even our own, and who can't fly NetJets, lease a skybox at a stadium or have a staff of four or five for a family of three or four.
Becker was moderating a panel and his comment came during the question and answer session that followed his group's formal presentations. The topic wasn't a prime concern of that session and so the comment passed. But I later tracked him down on his Cape Cod vacation.
"It's a really important issue," he said. "And one paper at the session did make estimates of the value of going from a poor to a median teacher and that seems large. I don't know what it would be going from a median to a really top teacher."
"But consider how a lot of people remember only a few very good teachers. If I was asked to remember names of my high school teachers, I could remember only two. It's the same when I was at college."
For folks who value and study markets, it's a curious matter since, on the face, the education market doesn't really seem to work right. As Becker noted, by and large we all wind up knowing the identities of the really good----and really bad----teachers at a school. When Becker asked his own grandchildren to name the best teachers at the University of Chicago Lab School, he says they immediately responded with names.
The starting pay for a Chicago Public School Teacher with a bachelor's degree is $50,777. The top salary a Chicago teacher can make is $95,887.
Negotiations are climaxing on pay in a new contract, with the near certainty of modest raises, given the system's awful finances. The results won't dramatically alter the overall salary calculus. A recent Chicago Sun-Times analysis ranked that current starting pay at No. 16 statewide and that top pay at No. 167 statewide.
Just take that top salary in Chicago and compare it simply to many salaries in the city government. And forget the many top executive positions. Just take ones such as the head of publicity for the treasurer's office ($102,708). Or a hoisting engineer ($100,048), or one of several deputy aviaition commissioners ($110, 748 for one, $116,904 for another), or just being one of the "assistants to the mayor" ($124,048).
Like those state rankings, it's all curious but still begs the question: why don't superstar teachers earn superstar pay? You might as well ask the same question of private school teachers, too, even as those schools don't have the same apparent constraints (unions, declining tax bases, etc.) as many public schools.
"In they K to 12 area, you can understand it a bit since teachers unions have strongly fought merit pay," said Becker. "But at the university level, where good teachers are valued, I had Milton Friedman as a teacher and he was far above all my other teachers. But his pay was very modest."
"Economically, it's a bit of a puzzzle. If it's not all about the teachers unions being powerful and opposed to merit pay, it's a puzzle where there is not much competition to bid up the price of the good ones."
There are many studies on variable values added by good teachers, many using standarized test scores as measures of success. As Tim Knowles, an education expert at the University of Chicago , the measures can get wobbly and lead to significant margins of error, given matters like the demographic composition of the kids in a classroom and the various ways schools systems have of gaming the most relevant tests.
Just the issue of using test scores to evaluate teachers is hotly-debated, with interesting arguments on both sides. Those conflicting views were well articulated by Thomas Kane of Harvard and Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University in dueling Wall Street Journal pieces.
For an expert like Knowles, and not just the layman, the arguments on both sides can seem to take on a somewhat messianic fervor. And teacher quality shouldn't be reduced to one score with a 50 percent margin of error, he says. The quality of instruction matters. Ditto a teacher's contribution to non-cognitive growth, like persistence, judgement, academic mindset and collegiality in dealing with a larger group.
It's those non-cognitive skills that can make early education so paramount, as some observers note, including James Heckman, another University of Chicago Nobel economist. He's got a pretty good site on the whole matter.
For sure, there's a bit of competition when it comes to teacher salaries and can explain why, say, a Chicago Public School teacher might occasionally split for a suburban district. But that doesn't seem to happen all that often; or at least not as often as one might assume if you had a market for free agent teachers that somehow mirrored the market for free agent athletes or many other jobs.
That's not to say we'd get seven-figure 8th grade biology teachers. But why aren't the truly great ones getting far more?
Becker thinks back to Milton Friedman, "who should have been paid a million dollars or more. Adjusting for inflation, he was probably making less than $30,000 (when Becker encountered him as a student). "
Fellow economists might say that, well, other schools just don't know who the good teachers are, so they don't bid for them, thus don't have to pay their folks any more. But is that really true? Teachers, principals, students and parents do move around and information is passed.
At one of our children's schools, we have heard from day one that both third-grade teachers are superb and it simply doesn't matter in which class one might wind up. I recently ran into sisters who are graduates of the school (with one now heading to Smith College) and both said the same thing. Each had one of those two teachers. Best in the joint, they agreed.
The vacationing Becker wondered if a central problem is lack of enough measurements about individual teachers. Getting data is hard, for sure. And teachers themselves can object to their promulgation and release, fretting over how empirical and fair they might all be.
It is, no doubt, a tough undertaking, namely getting good data. And perhaps that explains why, in a social science world where we seem to investigate everything, big and small, "economists just haven't shown much interest."
That's frustrating. We may have better research from our best minds when it comes to, say, derivatives or election precincts than on our classrooms.