The teacher workforce: Bigger vs. better

All the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts--and manifestos, studies, reports, and exhortations beyond enumeration--involving teacher recruitment, teacher quality, teacher compensation, and teacher retention miss the fundamental demographic reality at the core of almost all our teacher-related challenges: their sheer numbers.

I've previously observed that, over the past half century, the number of teachers employed by U.S. schools rose approximately twice as fast as the number of students attending them; that paying the salaries of all these additional people is where most of the additional education spending has gone; and that if the number of teachers had instead risen in proportion to pupil enrollments, today's average salary (assuming current school budgets) would exceed $100,000, plus generous benefits.

I recently went foraging for more macro-data regarding the teaching workforce. Instead of looking at NCES data, I turned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You may want to do that, too, particularly an informative May 2008 report on the number of people in various occupations and their pay.

There I found the number of school-teachers even larger than I had realized: 3,470,000 of them, not including special ed teachers, and more than four million when they are included. (These figures include private schools but not pre-school, specialized vocational teachers, teacher aides, or school administrators.)

For perspective, the BLS tallies 933,000 police and firemen; 1,134,000 accountants and auditors; and a mere 554,000 lawyers.

To get to numbers (of professionals) that even begin to rival those of teachers, you must turn to registered nurses, of whom there are about 2.5 million.

Here's another way to look at it. The population of Americans between the ages of 25 and 59 totals 146 million. Of them, 45 million hold bachelor's degrees (or higher) and roughly 82 percent participate in the active workforce. We can fairly estimate that the United States contains about 37 million working adults with college degrees between the ages of 25 and 59. Which suggests that more than ten percent of all working college-educated Americans are teaching in our primary-secondary schools.

That's not necessarily a criticism. We've got a lot of kids in school; many of them need tons of attention; so we need a lot of teachers. But every time we find ourselves slipping into a "best and brightest" reverie, we should pinch ourselves. It's folly to suppose that any occupation numbering more than four million people--and consuming one tenth of the educated workforce--is going to be staffed predominantly by superstars. Nor is it going to command superstar pay.

Speaking of which, the BLS declines to calculate average hourly wages for "occupations that do not generally work year round, full time," within which teachers, professors, and other educators are much the largest category. (Among the few others are commercial pilots, athletes and--amusingly--legislators.) In calculating the annual pay for other fields, however, BLS assumes a work-year of 2080 hours, which is 52 weeks at 40 hours a week. In other words, no vacation time is built into the calculation--nor are benefits added. Registered nurses, for example, show an average hourly salary of $31 and an average annual total of $65,000. Teachers display annual totals from $50,000 to $55,000. For simplicity, let's take the mid-point, $52,500, and divide it by 1440, which represents a 36-week year of 8 hour days--the number of weeks corresponding to a standard 180-day school year but giving teachers credit for working a couple of hours a day on top of the typical six hours that the kids are in school. Done that way, teachers' hourly rate turns out to be $36--better than registered nurses and about the same as sociologists, industrial engineers, statisticians, and the entire category of computer/mathematics folks.

If you don't care for my assumptions about teachers' work-year and work-day, do your own calculations. My point is that teacher pay looks to me to be roughly where we might expect it to be, given the size of this occupation, its educational prerequisites, and its status. (We'll save for another time a discussion of teacher benefits, which are almost certainly better than those of industrial engineers.)

In retrospect, I think American education would be better off today if we had concentrated over the decades on hiring smart, talented people and paying them well rather than enlarging the teacher workforce. But it's too late to re-bottle that genie. What we must therefore do if we're concerned about teacher effectiveness, as Steve Wilson persuasively argued in this space six months ago, is focus on what it takes to get the greatest impact from an enormous classroom workforce, much of which is destined to be rather ordinary college graduates--"mere mortals" is Wilson's phrase--and many of whom are apt to be short-timers. That calls for greater attention to structured curricula (including the scripted kind), to technology, to proven school designs, and to organizing the K-12 delivery system in ways that get the greatest possible bang from its relative handful of superstars. But we mustn't expect to employ four million superstars in our schools. There simply aren't enough to go around.

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