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What Economists Think About Democrats' New Educational Proposals: Planet Money: NPR

  Children in the classroom.

Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

  Children in the classroom.

Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

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Democratic presidential candidates have witnessed a historic wave of teacher strikes and protests that have seized the nation – and they want to allow teachers to raise their salaries.

Kamala Harris wants to spend $ 315 billion more than 10 years to increase the average salary of an average teacher by $ 13,500. Joe Biden plans to treble spending on a federal program for low-income schools and use much of that money for "competitive salaries". And Bernie Sanders wants to work with states to set a minimum salary of $ 60,000 for the nation's teachers.

These proposals, however, contain nothing, and they show a dramatic change in how the Democratic Party wants to govern education.

A Minimum of $ 60,000 in Context

By global standards, American teachers are well paid. According to the OECD, the starting salary of a typical American teacher in 2017 was around $ 40,000. This is the ninth of the 36 countries on the list. A minimum of US $ 60,000 would put the US in second place behind Luxembourg, which has an initial salary of more than US $ 70,000.

How do teachers at home pay a pile? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average K-12 teacher earns more than $ 62,000, which is $ 10,000 a year more than the average for all jobs ($ 51,960). The benefit is usually better than the average.

But maybe those are not the right comparisons. If we ask, "How much should a teacher be paid?" What we're really asking is, "How do we get great teachers to become teachers, not lawyers ($ 144,230) or engineers ($ 99,230) or anything else?" Teaching usually requires a college degree, sometimes more. This is associated with debt. And there is a growing pay gap between teachers and other similarly trained professionals. Last year, this gap reached a record.

Teachers make a lot of money … for other people

Everyone can appreciate the value of a great teacher. But economists as economists have tried to quantify exactly how valuable they are. Eric Hanushek of Stanford's Hoover Institution, Barbara Biasi of Yale's School of Management, Jonah Rockoff of Columbia Business School and John Friedman of Brown University were leading researchers in the field, and we have with them all spoken.

"I think teachers are by the way underpaid," says Hanushek. "I think we should see more six-figure salaries for the top teachers."

Many of the benefits that teachers create are intangible: a lifelong love of literature or mentoring that leads a child to a better life. However, some of the advantages are tangible . Hanushek went so far as to estimate a dollar amount. He notes that an effective teacher who is able to significantly improve students' test scores can increase the income of a class of 20 persons for a lifetime by $ 400,000 compared to what an average teacher could have. In the meantime, an ineffective teacher does the opposite and lowers the student's earnings potential by a similar amount. Friedman and Rockoff, together with Harvard's Raj Chetty, have done some studies with similar results. They find that above-average teachers provide their classrooms with large income gains and a range of other social benefits, such as lower teenage pregnancy rates.

As a good teacher, they have great economic benefits for the people who teach them, and society in general can not fully share the teachers' benefits they create. In economic terms this is a positive external effect and it is an important reason why we should pay them more.

"When you look at the future income of students with the best teachers, you see that there is a large survey that justifies very large salaries of high school teachers," says Hanushek.

The economists we've talked with have generally thought that we should tie the teachers' salaries to classroom performance rather than just raising general salaries, such as a minimum salary of $ 60,000. This is the consensus position for economists. About a decade ago, this also seemed to be the consensus of leading Democrats and Republicans. No longer. In the proposals submitted by Democrats on the campaign route no price for performance is mentioned.

Fighting in the Schoolyard for Teacher Salaries

A decade ago, this path was increasingly accepted Improving our education system meant tying teacher salary to performance and making it easier to bad teachers to dismiss. The diehard reformer and union opponent Michelle Rhee, then Chancellor of the DC Public Schools, appeared on the cover of Time . The documentary "Waiting For & # 39; Superman & # 39;" made waves. The Obama administration called on teachers' unions to drop their opposition to pay and use their Race To The Top program to encourage states to adopt innovative strategies that economists love and advocate. Not now.

"There was definitely a turn against a number of ideas in education that we saw as effective," says economist John Friedman.

One problem with keeping teacher salaries tied to student performance is that performance is difficult to measure. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has spent a lot of money and energy over the last two decades to fight this movement. The American Statistical Association and others have also challenged the reliability of models that measure teachers' impact on student achievement. Economists like Friedman, Rockoff and Chetty have pushed back. They say test results should not be the only measure of a teacher's effectiveness, but they can say a lot about how well they perform in the classroom.

Weingarten, who has worked closely with Senator Sanders, likes the idea of ​​a minimum salary for teachers: $ 60,000. "A middle class salary is important," she says. "It makes people think, I can teach and pay my student loans, I can teach and start a family." "

A recent working paper has found that as private sector jobs shrink, more talented candidates enter the teaching profession and significantly improve students' test scores, which may not be the most targeted method of educating but raising teachers' salaries could do the same in good times.

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