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This Explains Why Half Our Students Can't Read, And the Other Two-Thirds Can't Write

I mentioned last week that the Los Angeles Times ran an article of mine on California's tax-limiting Proposition 13. It is based on a longer essay that appears in the current City Journal.

One point I made in the Times concerned the relation between classroom overcrowding and teachers' compensation:

Make teachers expensive, and schools will hire fewer of them. According to statistics for 2008-09 from the National Education Assn., California's public schoolteachers are America's most highly compensated, with an average salary of $66,986, 24% above the national average. A job that requires nine months of work for $66,986 corresponds to one that pays $89,312 for 12. The majority of California taxpayers not only earn less than $89,312 a year but cannot receive, as Los Angeles teachers can, guaranteed lifetime tenure after a drive-by performance evaluation in their second year on the job.

One of the letters to the editor the Times ran yesterday read:

Voegeli's math regarding California teachers' salaries is illogical and odd. He states that the average teacher's salary is $66,986 for nine months of work, which corresponds to a job that pays $89,312 for 12 months of work. Many teachers work only 9 1/2 months because that is the length of the school year. That $66,986 is all there is.

Some teachers may get additional jobs, but probably few make enough during summer --which is about 10 weeks--to bring their salaries up to Voegeli's fictitious $89,312.

It certainly has never happened in my two-teacher household.

We can only hope neither of the educators in that household teaches English, mathematics or logic.  There isn't anything that tricky about pointing that a job paying $66,986 for nine months of work corresponds to one paying $89,312 for 12, is there?  $7,442.89 per month yields $66,986 over nine months and $89,315 (after rounding) over 12. 

My instructor sounds aggrieved that few people in her line of work have the chance to work during the summer at the same salary they receive during the school year.  It's hard to believe that no one mentioned, as she was going through the certification process, that this country does not have 12-month school years.  Those ten weeks off during the summer - plus two in the winter, one in the spring, and a generous sprinkling of other holidays - seem to be a huge part of the reason so many people start the certification process.  Conversely, a lot of auto mechanics and store clerks would be happy to have the option of taking one fourth of the year off, but it's a package that's rarely made available.

Any questions?
Categories > Education

Discussions - 10 Comments

Mr. Voegeli, I have such respect for all your work that I hesitate to say it, but...this is off. The letter writer has a basic point in his favor. Most secondary and elementary teachers are working way, way, way more than eight-hour days during the regular year. And they are probably doing a good deal of prep work for at least a month of that summer at at least 4-5 hours a day. Yes, there are the slackers, and the damn math/computer/econ teachers (who almost always do much less work than the average English or History teacher due to grading differences), but in truth it is fairly grueling work, and while not needing a summer vacation (nor needing equal pay during those times), breaks really become a necessity. These are eleven-to-twelve hour days that seem to drain more energy than similar days elsewhere. The smarter districts try to spread breaks up a bit, but they fight against longstanding custom regarding summer. I taught 8th grade English for a year (notice the "a" there), and subbed widely before that, so I know a bit of which I speak.

To those who have been there, talk of how cruise it is really sounds surreal.

Or put it this way--it is those who do the work conscientiously, (i.e., a good 30-70% of our teachers, depending on whether the district sucks or not) who are the ones most likely to be pissed off by this.

This does not change the fact that CA put good intentions before good math when trying to cut a deal with the teachers' unions. You need those damn math teachers sometimes!

Sorry, Bill . . . I think I have to second Carl here even as I agree with you about your basic point regarding the stupidity of California cowing to the unions.

Good teachers are the ones most likely to be offended by what you say (because, as Carl notes, they work very hard and often spend a lot of their own meager salaries to do it) and they are also in a bit of a bind . . . because good sounding ideas like "merit pay" (which, in theory, ought to help them) other such devices now suffer from the fact that if implemented they would be employed by people who do not understand what merit is. Is it test scores, is it innovation in the classroom, or what? And who decides? Is it the same at every school? And so on . . .

There are budgetary causes for some of our problems with education in California (and likely, elsewhere in the country) but the vast majority of education woes probably stem from other causes such as centralized control, poor schools of education at University, idiotic education theories run amok, and the inability of the field to attract as many women of high intelligence as it did in the days before other careers were widely available to them.

On the other hand . . . not sure California teachers as a group deserve to be among the most richly rewarded.

I believe Carl and Julie are both right - as they make slightly different points.

Whatever point WV was making about California, it can most likely be made in another way. I'd put most college professors on the block first, before K-12 teachers.

And just to pile on along with these other friendly critics: LAUSD has these staggered terms, so a teacher can teach without the traditional summer break. I'll ask my teacher friend what she thinks, too.

As someone whose has first hand experience and knowledge of the failing California public school system, I have to agree with WV. He is right. If teachers in the California public school system really worked hard and did their job, then why did my son fail miserably in all academic subjects from kindergarten until third grade. Why did they pass a child who could not read/comprehend above a first grader from first grade then to second grade and on to third grade. We found out his academic failings only through STAR testing which is not administered until the third grade. His teachers kept telling us and giving us good report cards. We spent $14,000 at Sylvan to bring him, while he was in fourth grade, from a first grade reading/comprehension & math level, to fifth grade level. Sylvan did this all in less that one year. In disgusted of the public school systems, we pulled him out and home schooled him. He is now a 4.5 honors (math and science) sophomore. He took the CA State Tests in 8th grade and tested at 12th grade level in all subjects. The story of my son is not a anomally. His is the standard. One in two in CA drop out of high school. The only thing teachers in California care about is their pension.

Now, "cowgirl" (??), stop blaming other people for your and your son's failures. That old whiny victim routine is getting pretty old. Boo-hoo, my son did poorly - it's those nasty teachers!

Also, having read through your comment, I do hope that someone else is in charge of his home-schooling in the English department (e.g., "not a anomally").

Friends: I don't deny that there are conscientious, hard-working public school teachers. But there are conscientious, hard-working accountants and salesmen, too. Many of them find themselves in circumstances that require working more than eight hours a day. Many of them, in the age of iPhones and laptops, are never really on vacation, even if they're away from their office on a family trip. There are no people in any line of work outside of education, however, who routinely get roughly one-fourth of the year to themselves. That has value, and while it may be hard to say precisely how much value, a plausible starting point is that $7,000 per month equals $7,000 per month, meaning that a nine-month a year job paying $63,000 corresponds to a 12-month a year job paying $84,000.

Furthermore, except for civil servants, no other category of workers gets a lifetime employment guarantee comparable to tenure. In some school districts, including some of the biggest, teachers can receive tenure after as little as two years on the job, following a review process that doesn't even rise to the level of perfunctory. And, as the Los Angeles Times and New Yorker documented in excellent articles last year, trying to fire a tenured teacher is a process that routinely stretches on for years, during which the teacher under review draws full salary and credit towards a generous pension while doing nothing. After all that, the process is designed to avoid firing a teacher who doesn't deserve it, even if it means keeping ten who should get fired. It is, as a result, apt to result in the retention of even scandalously inept or exploitative teachers whose deficiencies have been chronicled exhaustively. Given this long and doubtful obstacle course, most school administrators choose to live with teachers who are merely lousy, and embark on the dismissal process only for the worst of the worst.

There is no easy way to place a dollar value on these job guarantees. Lots of store clerks and barbers, presumably, would be happy to accept a reduced salary in return for living in the educator's parallel universe, where a 40-year employment guarantee is routinely conferred on employees in their 20's, where some people may pursue excellence as a matter of pride, but all know that their compensation and job security won't be damaged if they settle for being mediocrities.

While the monetary value of tenure is hard to specify, it will be noted that one hears many stories about the unappreciated trials and labors public school teachers must endure. What one rarely hears about, however, are school systems that are unable to find applicants for the teaching openings they do have. If the trade-offs people make when they enter the teaching profession - low starting pay, rising to a decent middle-class compensation but with no chance for breaking into the highest tax brackets; in exchange for unusually good retirement benefits, and exceptional job security - were really such a lousy bargain, one would expect that public education would suffer from a chronic shortage of qualified labor. I've read articles over the years predicting a shortage of schoolteachers, but never an article describing one that is actually taking place. Until we see a stampede of people voting with their feet to leave teaching for other careers, we can safely retain the idea that our arrangements for compensating teachers do not err on the side of stinginess.

Excuse me Gilley = my son's and my failures. Really? Teachers are suppose to teach and know their student's capabilities. I, repeat I, took control of the situation and paid $14,000 to have Sylvan teach my son - they were successful. The public school was not. So, I will play Captain Obvious here. My son was not a failure. He is a 4.5 Honors Student with a major emphasis in math and science. Repeat, a 4.5 Honors student with a major emphasis in math and science. He took the California Standardized tests in 8th grade and tested out at 12th grade level. Repeat. He took the California Standardized tests in 8th grade and tested out at 12th grade level. He is not a failure. He came to the level he is now at because if 1) parents 2) Sylvan and 3) home schooling. The public school system has nothing to do with his successes - they were the cause of his failures. Also, Captaini English - we you have no facts or basis for an argument - go the for grammar, that way you can feel like a big man or woman or whatever you may be.

When I taught for 10 years, I never complained about making my private school teacher salary. I thought I was fairly compensated for the work I did ~ and, yes, I worked very hard, sometimes teaching 3 separate A.P. classes with two other regular preps, administrative duties, club adviser, etc. And, yes, I enjoyed my summers off because I typically read 50-70 books to prepare for teaching the following year so that my subject knowledge would be as perfect as I could get it. That was a lot of fun. I could have worked all year but I'm glad I didn't because I was on sabbatical all summer.

WV, I can see your math on the theoretical pay that a 9 month teacher would make in 12 months. But, it's pure theory because teachers, obviously as you know, don't make the 12 month salary. And, there are very few jobs out there that would hire a person for 3 months and allow them to make their regular salary. In short, a 56K salary may correspond to 70K, but you've still got 56K in your pocket until the federal government comes along.

I agree with Tony Williams in that my high school teaching job was not a short day five days a week nor did it end over the summer. That time was spent preparing for the next year sometimes at the Ashbrook Center. The best teachers put in a heck of a lot of time, for which they are paid as if only working for nine months.

Is summer vacation a right demanded by teachers or by parents and students as a right by tradition?

I also agree that there are too few really good teachers. I know quite a few through the Ashbrook Center's programs for teachers. I also have become acquainted with quite an astonishing number of inadequate teachers through my children when they went to public and sometimes even private schools. Educational standards in America are not nearly what they ought to be. Those teachers I know whose personal standards raise them above the norm probably do not get paid enough. Julie is right about the use of merit pay when the standards for American educators are so bizarre and not really useful in promoting learning.

I become more aware of the inadequacy of K-12 education with each succeeding incoming community college class. Not only am I forced to do absurd remedial work, but a good part of my department's budget goes into courses which are totally remedial and non-credit bearing as a result.

Is it possible that the best educators wisely choose to become employed somewhere else to get better wages? The value of the time off may not compensate for the lack of ready cash. As Mr. Voegeli seems to put it, those folks who stay in education are either fools or lazy or too incompetent to work elsewhere. Maybe he is correct and it is only noble fools who are both good educators and remaining in the profession despite problems with compensation. If they had any intelligence they would do some other job that earned them more money, and esteem, as seems to be true of nearly every former HS educator who comments here.

I ask again who imposes the 9 month term for employment for teachers? Maybe if school were year-round with a salary to match better people would stay in the job.

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