I was at a conference last week about public sector employment law. Interesting discussions about the legal issues the increasing scrutiny of collective bargaining, salaries, benefits, and pensions is raising.
At one point someone asked a question about teachers with the predicate that everyone knows teachers don’t go into teaching for the money. This is another of these chestnuts it would be great to put behind us. Of course teachers don’t go into teaching just for the money, for starters the cash compensation isn’t all that good in many places. But while I wouldn’t file this under “true but useless” as with a lot of things in education that nugget of “insight” obscures more than it reveals. And, if the goal is to pay teachers better than today then perhaps the profession’s advocates ought not sell it as a missionary’s line of work but rather as a profession like any other where money along with other non-monetary incentives combine to make it attractive to some people.
The question made me think about a comment I heard Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg make earlier this year at the New Schools meeting. He was asked about why Facebook was a for-profit rather than a non-profit given all the social things it seeks to do. You could ask the same question of Google or a variety of other companies. Zuckerberg responded that people come to work at Facebook for a lot of reasons – to make a difference in the world, to work with highly talented people and advance their careers, because they like to write code and work with software, because it’s an exciting and dynamic company, or just to make money because it’s a lucrative place to work – or some combination of those reasons. His point was that the varied reasons allow Facebook to attract more talent than it might otherwise.
In education the reasons are different than the Facebook example but are varied as well. For some the security is appealing, for others the flexible schedule, the deferred compensation (pensions and health care in retirement) becomes attractive as people progress in their career, and of course working with kids or trying to make a difference for them drives people – or some combination of these and other reasons. But money matters, too, in various ways. You see this in labor market behavior, for example, and you see it in the data about pensions and retirement decisions. Doing it just for the money and being influenced in one’s professional choices by money are two different issues and we’d be wise to disentangle them in the public conversation about teacher pay.
Compensation isn’t just about today’s teachers, it also matters in terms of recruiting tomorrow’s. And to paint teachers as just do-gooders who are immune to the choices and incentives that drive all of us is just another way we infantilize rather than elevate teachers in our society. Besides, in a more pragmatic and political vein, in the era of public sector belt-tightening and Tea Party demands for austerity singling out one sector and saying they don’t care about the money (and often in the same breath saying they should be paid more) doesn’t seem like a particularly smart strategy.