Tag: teachers

Does Watching Whales Make You a Better Teacher?

whale_watchingYears ago, talking with a public school teacher friend of mine at the end of the school year, she told me how excited she was about her impending orca whale watching outings in the San Juan Islands. Not only would it be a blast, but it would count as a continuing education credit (toward a master’s of education degree, as I recall) that would boost her salary substantially.

Normally, I bite my tongue in such situations. But before I could stop myself I blurted out the question: “Is watching whales going to make you a better teacher?”

The lack of any relationship between education master’s degrees and student achievement is acknowledged in a recent study from the Center for American Progress by Marguerite Roza and Raegen Miller.  In fact, Roza and Miller find that states waste $8.6 billion every year paying for master’s degrees that do nothing to improve student performance. Ironically, the state that offers the highest wage bump to teachers who obtain an M. Ed. ($10,777) is my home state of Washington.

Watching whales may not do much for your students, but it does wonders for your pocketbook. (HT: Joanne Jacobs)

Those Who “Serve” Us Celebrate

adamsThose who think that the college-educated, or soon to be so, should have more and more of their education funded by taxpayers – whether those taxpayers themselves attended college or not – are shooting off the fireworks a bit early this year, celebrating increasingly generous federal aid going into effect today.

Perhaps the most galling part of all the increasingly free-flowing aid is how much is being targeted at people who work in “public service.” Ignoring for the moment that the people who make our computers, run our grocery stores, play professional baseball, and on and on are all providing the public with things it wants and needs, to make policy on the assumption that people in predominantly government jobs are somehow selflessly sacrificing for the common good is to blatantly disregard reality.

Consider teachers, as I have done in-depth. According to 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, adjusted to reflect actual time worked, teachers earn more on an hourly basis than accountants, registered nurses, and insurance underwriters. Elementary school teachers – the lowest paid among elementary, middle, and high school educators – made an average of $35.49 an hour, versus $32.91 for accountants and auditors, $32.54 for RNs, and $31.31 for insurance underwriters.

So much for the notion that teachers get paid in nothing but children’s smiles and whatever pittance a cruel public begrudgingly permits them.

How about government employees?

Chris Edwards has done yeoman’s work pointing out how well compensated federal bureaucrats are, noting that in 2007 the average annual wage of a federal civilian employee was $77,143, versus $48,035 for the average private sector worker. And when benefits were factored in, federal employee compensation was twice as large as private sector. But don’t just take Chris’s word and data to see that federal employment is far from self-sacrificial – take the Washington Post’s “Jobs” section!

And it’s not just federal employees or teachers who are making some pretty pennies serving John Q. Public. As a recent Forbes article revealed, it’s people at all levels of government, from firefighters to municipal clerks:

In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector’s $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

Recently, my wife and I have been watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, and I couldn’t help but make the observation: In Adams’ time, many of those who served the public truly did so at great expense to themselves, often risking their very lives and asking little, if anything, from the public in return. Today, in contrast, many if not most of those who supposedly serve the public do so at no risk to themselves – indeed, unparalleled security is one of the great benefits of their employment – but are treated as if their jobs are extraordinary sacrifices. And so, as we head into Independence Day, it seems the World has once again been turned upside down: In modern America, the public works mightily to serve its servants, not the other way around.

Education Tax Credits Pass in Indiana

Despite the economy and the dogged opposition of powerful Big Ed, education tax credits are surviving and thriving. The latest state to jump into k-12 tax credits is Indiana. From the Friedman Foundation yesterday:

Indiana lawmakers today approved a $2.5 million scholarship tax credit program in the home state of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The new scholarship program was inserted into the state’s budget and won approval in the late hours of the special legislative session. The bill, which passed the Senate 34-16 and the House 61-36, now goes to the governor who is anticipated to sign it in the coming days.

Unfortunately, the credit is only 50% for each dollar donated, unlike the more powerful ones in PA, FL, and AZ. But I know Friedman, School Choice Indiana and their allies will be fighting hard in coming years to increase the credit amount and program cap.

Sounds like Governor Mitch Daniels deserves kudos for keeping the bill in his budget and pushing for the program. And the word is that around 27 percent of the House Democrats voted for the budget despite the tax credit and virtual charter school programs that the teachers unions opposed. Big Ed ain’t what he used to be.

School Choice, Not Stalemate

A Washington Post editorial today rightly laments the seemingly insurmountable impasse reached by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union. Actually, scratch the WTU – I mean the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU’s parent organization, which has essentially taken over the negotiations because it thinks giving into much higher pay for somewhat less job security would be a disaster of national proportions. But the union’s stifling full court press isn’t what primarily bothers the Post. It’s that lowly John Q. Public isn’t getting even a crumb of information from the power brokers about major decisions that are all supposed benefit his kids.

But since when did the best interests of kids or the public really matter in public schooling decisions? Sure, parents and regular citizens can vote every few years, but what the heck else can they do? They can’t stop paying the taxes that fund both chancellors and teachers. They can’t form their own union and require teachers and chancellors to negotiate with them. All they can do is complain, and it’s pretty hard to hear them when you’re behind closed doors, arguing with some other guy about which one of you should be king.

And to think, someone thought it was a good idea to kill a program that actually gives parents some power…

Selflessly Giving…to Themselves

I wasn’t going to write about this because it is purely anecdotal, but Chris Edwards’ post on the generous compensation of federal employees, and the constant denial of that generosity by those employees’ representatives, inspired me to ingore my reservations.

A couple of days ago, I was driving through the streets of D.C. and ended up behind what appeared to be a new, black Jaguar. Now, trailing a Jag wasn’t all that extraordinary – D.C. is home to a lot of fancy cars. What was extraordinary was the wholly inconsistent declaration printed on the frame of the status symbol’s license plate: “Proud to be a social worker.”

It seemed wholly inconsistent, I should say, except, again, fancy automobiles are common on the streets of D.C., even though the District is supposed to be a city populated with “public servants.” So this public-serving D.C. driver was perhaps out of the ordinary for his implied candor, but is no doubt far from alone in serving himself at least as much as he’s serving others.

Of course, systemic evidence like Chris presents on federal workers, or I present on teacher compensation, indicates much more conclusively than my automotive observations that public-service-as-a-synonym-for-sacrifice is largely a political myth, a narrative repeated by public employees to win your sympathy while they grab for your wallet. Which is not to say that social workers, teachers, federal bureaucrats, etc., aren’t motivated to help others – no doubt many are – but like all of us, they’re also highly motivated to help themselves. And since their compensation comes through politics, it is making the public believe that they live tough, self-sacrificial lives that is, ironically, the key to their living the Good Life.

The Price of Ignorance

We here at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom spend a lot of time just trying to help people get their facts straight. You know, providing information that clearly shows that government schools are not the foundation of American democracy, or itemizing programs to show that school choice is not a political failure. That sort of thing.

Well, a new study in the journal Education Next demonstrates why just getting people solid information is so important: When the public has just a few basic facts about such things as public school expenditures or teacher salaries, support for heaping more dough on our sinkhole public schools takes a pretty big dip.

On spending, investigators William G. Howell and Martin R. West found that people provided with actual per-pupil expenditure data for their districts were significantly less likely to support increased spending, or to think that increased spending would improve student learning, than were respondents not given such data. Only 51 percent of respondents informed about actual outlays thought spending should be increased, versus 61 percent of uninformed respondents, and only 55 percent of informed respondents were confident that more spending would improve student learning (versus 60 percent of uninformed). Those levels are still way too high in light of the at-best very weak correlation between spending and achievement, but they do show that when people have good data to go on they tend to approach spending more rationally.

How about teacher salaries? Unfortunately, Howell and West didn’t inform respondents about teacher pay using hourly earnings, which in light of the relatively small number of hours teachers work is the fairest way to judge how well they are paid. The effect of knowing even annual salaries, however, is telling: While 69 percent of uninformed respondents supported increasing educator salaries, only 55 percent of informed people thought teacher salaries should be bolstered.

So when it comes to American education, it seems a little knowledge, far from being a dangerous thing, can be a pretty big step in the right direction.

Why Should We Pity These People?

A couple of weeks ago, I ripped apart a factually anemic but all-too-typical USA Today article decrying the plight of student debtors. Today, the grand journalistic tradition of anecdote-and-pity laden reporting on student debt continues with offerings from Business Week and The New York Times.

In an article about tight times for student loan forgiveness programs, The Old Gray Lady sticks with the journalistic tried-and-true by leading with an extreme anecdote that readers, presumably, are supposed to see as illustrating typical suffering:

When a Kentucky agency cut back its program to forgive student loans for schoolteachers, Travis B. Gay knew he and his wife, Stephanie — both special-education teachers — were in trouble.

“We’d gotten married in June and bought a house, pretty much planned our whole life,” said Mr. Gay, 26. Together, they had about $100,000 in student loans that they expected the program to help them repay over five years.

Then, he said, “we get a letter in the mail saying that our forgiveness this year was next to nothing.”

Now they are weighing whether to sell their three-bedroom house in Lawrenceburg, Ky., some 20 miles west of Lexington. Otherwise, Mr. Gay said, “it’s going to be very difficult for us to do our student loan payments, house payments and just eat.”

Please, Mr. Gay (and Mr. Glater, the author of this heart-string puller)! You, and presumably your wife, are only in your mid-twenties, have what appears to be a very nice home according to the picture accompanying the article, and yet have the nerve to assert that taxpayers should eat your student loans lest you not eat at all!

Excuse me if I don’t start singing “We Are the World.”

This is simple greed – you know, the stuff for which the media regularly excoriates “big business” – but readers are expected to see it as suffering because it involves recent college grads. Oh, and grads who have gone into teaching, according to Glater “a high-value but often low-paying” field. That the Gays have felt wealthy enough to buy a house despite holding much greater than normal student debt – and the fact that on an hourly basis teachers get paid on par with comparable professionals – doesn’t present any impediment to the reporter repeating the baseless underpaid teacher myth. It’s all just part of the standard narratives.

Business Week’s piece isn’t much better than the Times’, though at least reporter John Tozzi had the decency not to start off with an emotionally manipulative anecdote of supposed human suffering. His third paragraph, however, centers around “analysis” from the student-centric Project on Student Debt, and he rolls out the ol’ Tale of Woe right after:

“It’s just so frustrating,” says Susan D. Strayer, director of talent acquisition for Ritz-Carlton in Washington. “They tell you to be self-made. They tell you get yourself a good education and you can get yourself into a pretty big hole.” Strayer, 33, has $90,000 in student loan debt from her bachelor’s at Virginia Tech and a master’s from George Washington University. She also has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, which she earned on a full scholarship—but skipped two years of earnings to acquire. Strayer says her monthly loan payments of $600 barely budge the principal on her debt. She doesn’t regret her educational decisions, although she says the debt load has made her put off plans to pursue a consulting side business full-time.

So Ms. Strayer chose one of the most expensive schools in the country —George Washington — for a Master’s (in what we do not know); we have no information about why she chose to finance her education through loans (she and her parents bought new cars, clothes, and stereos instead of saving for college, perhaps?); but we are supposed to feel it is a terrible thing that at 33 she hasn’t been able to start a full-time consulting business. Why is that, exactly?

Thankfully, though he frontloads anecdotes and pity parties, Tozzi ends his piece with a clear, if far too rare, voice of reason:

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Oh, I have all this student loan debt,’ but I chose to take it and I have to deal with the consequences of that choice,” [24-year-old] Patricia Hudak says. “So many people in my generation think of everything as a short-term investment with immediate return.”

Finally, someone I can truly feel sorry for! Why? Because with journalists cheering it on, Ms. Hudak is exactly the kind of person that our political system will punish, making her pay not only for her own choices, but those of the Gays, Ms. Strayer, and countless other student debtors who really do think that everything, and everybody, should give them an immediate — and huge — payoff.