I vividly remember, while growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the '70s, knowing that my sixth-grade math teacher was also—even during the school year—a licensed and active travel agent, and I recall seeing a number of my high-school teachers, all with master's degrees or Ph.D.'s, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it's a disgrace. When teachers are forced to tend the yards of students' homes, to clean houses, or to sell stereos on nights and weekends, the quality of education is diminished, the profession is disrespected, and we parody the notion that we hold our schools and teachers in the highest regard. Teachers with two and three jobs are tired, their families are frustrated, and the students they teach, who want to —- and should -— consider their instructors exalted figures, learn instead to think of teaching as a part-time gig, the day job for the guy who sells Game Boys at Circuit City.Socialist psychobabble! What's worse is that "We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher's." Then there's this: "[A] San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000."
No, "we" don't pay orthodontists. Orthodontists, who practice a profession the entry to which is controlled by a high-class union and licensing laws, are paid willingly by their patients. As for those dockworkers and shipping clerks, they simply belong to a more rapacious union than the ones that represent teachers. Public-school teachers -- unlike orthodontists, dock workers, and shipping clerks -- are paid with money that governments coerce from taxpayers. There's not a moral dime's worth of difference between any of these professions. They're just practicing different forms of income redistribution.
But none of that explains why public-school teachers make what they make, which is not too little and -- given that many of them are unionized and all of them are feeding at the public trough -- is probably too much. After all, those teachers who don't think they're making "enough" can always get a second job (as many of them do) or take up a different occupation (as many of them do). But no one's forcing them to teach. When's the last time a school district shanghaied a passer-by, dragged him into a classroom, and said "teach, or it's off to Circuit City with ye"?
Why then, do public-school teachers make what they make? Our old friends Supply, Demand, and Competition have the answer.
Let's start with Demand. Governments have a virtual monopoly on education through the 12th grade. Through a long process of acculturation and co-option, governments have delegated their monopoly power to the "professional educators" (hereafter, Educators) who run school systems. These Educators, through another long process of acculturation and co-option, have developed a model of the ideal teacher. That model, which they apply ruthlessly, places far greater emphasis on arcane, pseudo-scientific teaching techniques than it does on the substance of what is to be taught. Competence in a subject is far less important than "competence" in the cabbala of education.
Not being content with form over substance, Educators demand low student-teacher ratios, even though the value of low student-teacher ratios is mythical. Educators also demand that taxpayers equip classrooms with the latest gadgets, not because the gadgets are especially useful teaching devices but because other school districts have them. (It's a pedantic arms race.)
Thus, given the sums that Educators are able to extract from taxpayers without facing outright rebellion, they effectively choose quantity over quality. That is, were it not for low student-teacher ratios and expensive gadgets, they could have fewer but somewhat more competent teachers at a higher average salary. Instead they willingly accept more but somewhat less competent teachers at a lower average salary.
Now comes Supply. Teaching doesn't attract many of the best and brightest, who have more lucrative options. (As I've just said, Educators themselves are to blame for the level of teachers' salaries.) But there's more to it than that. Teaching doesn't attract the best and brightest because they are repulsed by the emphasis on form (pseudo-scientific credentials) over substance. The best and the brightest are often willing to accept lower wages in return for stimulating work. Public-school teaching can be stimulating, but public schools, by and large, insist on ritual conformity to pseudo-scientific educational psychobabble, discourage originality ("here's the approved textbook and here's the approved syllabus"), cater mainly to the lowest common denominator in the student body, and tolerate disruptive behavior. Public-school teachers are as much day-care providers as they are teachers. Well, day care isn't a profession that attracts many of the best and brightest.
Finally enters the wraith of Competition, whose shadow doesn't darken public schools. And that's the root of the problem. Educators (the big "E" variety) get away with putting form above substance and quantity above quality because parents have no choice. The tax collector sucks parents dry, and few of them have recourse to vouchers for private education. And it's all the doing of the Education monopoly, as I've explained before.
If vouchers were widely available so that private schools could compete robustly with public schools -- and if governments allowed private schools to focus on substance (results), not form (credits in "education" classes) -- they would hire more of the best and brightest as teachers. That would draw more and more students away from public schools until public schools were forced to compete with private schools in terms of quality. Then public schools would strive to hire some of the best and brightest for their own classrooms. The next thing you know (well, maybe after a decade or so), America's children would be getting the world's best education from relatively well paid teachers. But not many of them would be holdovers from today's public schools.
Professional Educators and their unions aren't about to let that happen. They may not be the best and brightest, but they have their priorities: first, jobs for the mediocre; second, baby-sitting (it's easier than real teaching); third, teaching (to the extent they know enough to teach something).