Part 4 in a Four Part Series
Many of us believe that people should be paid in accordance with the importance of their work. We love to sit around and bemoan those NBA basketball players collecting millions just for “putting a ball through a hoop.” But the reality is that there are other factors that determine pay—factors that often have nothing to do with the “importance” of the work being done. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now and I believe I’ve identified three factors that determine whether a job will be highly or poorly paid.
1. Scarcity creates value
2. Difficulty creates value
3. Prestige creates value
Scarcity refers to how many jobs in a particular category are available. The fewer the jobs available, the more selective employers will be and the more they will be willing to pay to get the best candidates. Difficulty refers to the level of skill and training required for the job. A job that “anybody can do” with minimal training generally won’t pay well. On the other hand, a job that requires rare and unique talents, or extensive, demanding training will pay well, as employers seek to attract and keep the limited number of people who can do the work well. Finally, there is prestige, a factor often--but not always--a function of difficulty and scarcity. Generally jobs that are very hard and which have only a few openings are afforded a great deal of prestige. We respect talent and we’re a little in awe of jobs that only a few people will be lucky enough to get.
Making the big bucks for a few hours of work. Do they earn it?
Let’s look at that NBA basketball player to illustrate what I mean, and then compare that to a teacher. There are only 30 NBA basketball teams in the nation—a grand total of 360 to 450 players in the league. Clearly job openings for the position of basketball player are very scarce, which leads logically to the second factor: you have to be very, very good to get one of those coveted positions. With so few opportunities to play professional basketball, only the most uniquely talented players who in addition have put in years of practice and training from their youth onward will get in. It’s easy to sit in front of our TVs sneering at how much these guys are paid to put a ball through a hoop, but the honest truth is to play at that level requires a level of skill that is far beyond anything most of us could ever hope to approach. Finally, NBA basketball player is a prestigious job. Part of that is directly a result of the limited number of job openings and the talent required, but there is also something else. We bestow prestige on our athletes. We show by our time, money, and devotion that we feel their work is of vital importance. After all, not all sports are created equal. Though world-class water polo also probably has few job openings and requires exceptional talent, according to KayCircle.com the average professional water polo player only makes $47,000 a year. That doesn’t begin to approach LeBron James’ salary--though it is approaching the pay ceiling for a teacher. The difference? The value we the public place on the sport. It’s hypocritical of us to gripe about athlete’s salaries when part of the reason they are paid so much is because we have placed such a high value on what they do. It’s no accident that entertainers of all kinds whether in sports, movies, or music are so highly paid. All three areas have limited job opportunities, require a level of ability that most don’t have, and are highly valued by our entertainment-centric society.
Note again that what’s missing from this formula is actual worth to society. The value of the work is not part of the equation. Most people, if asked, will say that their families and especially their children are the most important thing in the world to them. And yet, consistently, professions that deal with the care and raising of our children are among the lowest paid.
By now it should be very clear why teachers are underpaid. First of all the sheer number of teachers needed means that there will always be more than enough job openings in the education profession. There are approximately 6.2 million teaching jobs in the United States. By comparison there are less than a million physicians. And this makes sense of course—not every child in America goes to the doctor five days a week for twelve straight years. But every child in America does have to go to school on such a regimen, and as a result many more teachers are required to meet that need.
Secondly, as I’ve discussed in my previous blogs in this series, the job is at least perceived to require little ability or unique talent. It’s a common belief that “anybody can be a teacher.” And certainly, the training required, if not the job itself is relatively undemanding. Also the value that comes from teaching is not immediately apparent. When a neurosurgeon performs life-saving surgery we can immediately and directly see the value of his or her work. The value of a teacher’s work may not be evident until years later and even then we may not attribute a person’s success to the work of their teachers.
Finally, as has also been discussed, there is little prestige in the teaching profession. These three factors combined explain why, while we may give lip-service to the importance of teaching, there is no reflection of that value in their pay.
Like the basketball player, his job can look easy. Is he getting paid what he's worth?
If our society were to accord teachers the real respect they deserve; if we were to acknowledge how difficult it is to teach well, and how few people really master the art and science of teaching; if we created teacher training programs that were highly selective and extraordinarily challenging, I believe we would see an increase in teacher salaries. However, even then there would still be a ceiling created by the sheer volume of teachers needed to meet the goal of providing a free public education to every child in the nation. No matter how selective the field, no matter how much we honor teachers, educators will never be paid like NBA stars or Hollywood actors, or even doctors and lawyers. After all, where would we get that kind of money? There’s just too many open positions, and what would likely happen is that poorer school districts would struggle to come up with the money to attract the best talent, while more wealthy areas would snap up the best of the best with offers of better salaries. That already happens now to a degree. To get a job in the best public or private schools is often next to impossible, while practically anyone can walk into the inner city school downtown and get a job.
We often suggest that “nobody goes into teaching for the money” as if that in and of itself is a good thing. It’s not necessarily so noble a situation. Many people who might have been excellent teachers go into other fields “for the money.” Furthermore, there are some educators who are “in it for the money.” After all, it’s a job right, and better than working at McDonalds. Don’t get me wrong, I believe there are many teachers who chose this profession for the right reasons—teachers who knew they could have made more in another field, but chose this one because of their passion of for kids, learning, and helping kids learn--people who believe, regardless of the pay, teaching is one of the best and most important jobs in the world. But I bet none of those teachers would argue that teacher salaries should be kept low in order to keep educator’s motives pure.
After all, there are those who pursue medicine, law, or even professional sports “for the money” but the system ensures that the merely greedy will not succeed. First and foremost they must excel at what they do, and the same would be true for highly paid teachers. Granted, if nothing about our current approach to teaching changed except that we doubled all teachers’ salaries, you would have greedy, unprincipled people joining the teaching ranks just for the paycheck. But an increase in pay that came as a result of greater societal respect and greater selectivity in training and hiring would actually ensure that more than likely the teacher working with your child isn’t there solely because of the money.
Despite the hurdles of overwork, under-appreciation, and low pay countless excellent teachers continue to go to work every day in schools all across America. They believe that every child is of worth and value; they are eternal optimists, picturing every child as a success—perhaps not now, but surely someday. They may not make a lot of money, but they believe in their hearts that they are making something far more important: a difference.
I first saw this inspiring little video by poet,humorist,and teacher Taylor Mali, when my friend (and fellow teacher) Mai Odiyar attached it to a comment she made on my first entry in this series. I'm reposting it here in case you didn't see it in her comment.