Why are teachers in our country paid less? Because we devalue what they do
Our most precious resource is our children. Their development is what ensures the health of our nation. Next to parents, K-12 teachers are the most instrumental in cultivating that resource. They are the primary means of transferring knowledge from old to young.
This most important of jobs can't attract and retain people to fill them. A report published by the National Education Association details an alarming number of teachers deciding not to return to classrooms this fall. And we may be about to face a long-term teaching shortage. According to the Center for American Progress, enrollment in teacher training programs dropped by a third from 2010 to 2018.
When I began working on this piece, I was sure that I would focus on the low pay of teachers. I saw that a starting teacher in the school district where I graduated from makes $36,000 per year. This kind of compensation is untenable for such an emotionally taxing profession that requires four or five years of training.
But I shifted gears rather quickly. Something comes before pay — our belief that the job is of value. Teachers in our country are paid less because we devalue what they do.
Standard views by economists as to what determines wages will include worker productivity or supply and demand. Meanwhile, many economic sociologists claim that our societal assumptions about the value of a job influence the wages it can command. If a job is seen as "women's work," the wages for that job decline.
One version of this claim links the five c's — cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work — to lower pay, because these jobs are predominantly female. One can see this without any complex analysis.
But when complex statistical models are used to tease out precise changes in pay, it gets worse. A study in 2009 showed the changes in the average wages of a profession as women move into it.
The study looked at changes from 1950 to 2000, and the findings were eye-opening. As highlighted in the Times, the pay for jobs in recreation declined by 57 percent over that period, as women entered the profession. As women became designers, wages fell by 34 percent. For biologists, 18 percent.
"It's not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance … it's just that the employers are deciding to pay it less," said Paula England, one of the authors of the study. In other words, wages are not simply about productivity or the demand for a job. It is also about how much we value what that person does.
Since the advent of mass public education in the mid-19th century, teaching has been a female-dominated profession. By the late 1880s, women were 63 percent of the nation's teachers. The percentage of women in teaching has only increased, even as other professions opened to women in the late 20th century. By 2015-2016, there were 3.8 million public K-12 teachers in the US, of which about 77 percent were female.
The long association of teaching to femininity is partly to blame for the devaluing of the teaching profession. But there is another reason.
Draining the pool
One of the best books I have read over the past year was Heather McGhee's The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, describes the consequences of the racial hierarchy in the US.
Many white Americans view public policy, as it relates to race, as a zero-sum game. They interpret policies that disproportionately benefit Black Americans as them losing something.
McGhee uses the example of public swimming pools closing across the country in the 1960s after civil rights legislation made separate swimming facilities unconstitutional. McGhee argues that white communities saw a sharing of privileges with Black Americans as a lessening of theirs. They voted to close public swimming facilities. As McGhee puts it, they preferred to "drain the pool" rather than share it with Black Americans. McGhee, clearly linking this to the policies of the Republic Party post-1960, sees this dynamic in other public goods as well, from social programs to public infrastructure to health care.
And so it is with teaching.
Republicans have been attacking public schools since at least Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. Most liberal commentators will center their discussion on school choice and vouchers — something Reagan indeed brought up during his campaign. School choice, some may argue, is a way of starving a public school system. A more cynical view is that school choice would reduce the power of teachers' unions that almost universally support liberal policies.
But there is something deeper here, and this is why I like McGhee's analysis. Our public school system is supposed to be a great leveler — a dismantler of racial and class hierarchy. Our schools are supposed to be places where young people from different backgrounds can meet, mingle and learn together. It is … a kind of pool.
Teachers are caretakers of that pool. As such, there is little mystery as to why what they do is devalued. Why would Republicans support a pay raise or better working conditions for people who are a part of a system they despise?
They want that pool drained and cemented over permanently.
Two factors work together to suppress the wages of teachers. There is the historical association of teaching as "women's work." And then there is the disdain by white conservatives for public goods that threaten to level a racial hierarchy.
Knowing the cause gives us some clues as to the cure. Until we address the undervaluing of teachers, an increase in teacher salaries or investments that improve their working conditions is a non-starter. The organizations that support K-12 teachers need to value value. Our expectations about what teachers deserve, their worth, and their social esteem are important in of themselves. Without public perceptions of teachers as valuable, lawmakers are simply not going to make teacher raises or smaller classroom sizes a major priority.
I am calling out our two most prominent K-12 organizations – The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. These organizations need to make a concerted effort to improve the public perception of teachers. They need to shift some time and energy away from partisan politics and invest it in demonstrating to the American public — and yes, this includes conservatives — the value public school teachers have in our society.