Teacher Pay: You Can Go with This, or You Can Go with That
The 2001 music video for “Weapon of Choice,” a big beat, electronic song by Fatboy Slim (with Bootsy Collins), featured Christopher Walken dancing through a deserted hotel lobby. The lyrics of the song repeated, “You can blow with this, or you can blow with that.” When I first heard the song, we didn’t have YouTube and I did not have the ability to Google the lyrics. I thought the song was saying, “You can go with this, or you can go with that.” That’s still how I hear the song today.
This is also how I would describe the recent Economics of Education Review paper by Dillon Fuchsman, Josh McGee, and Gema Zamarro. The authors surveyed more than 5,000 teachers about their stated preferences. The 15-minute survey presented teachers with two hypothetical job offers. Would they prefer a higher salary or smaller class sizes? More pay today or more pay in retirement? In other words, “you can go with this, or you can go with that.”
The paper is a good reminder that our policy choices in education are all about tradeoffs and balancing preferences. Lately, we have often heard that teacher pay in Missouri is relatively low. We don’t hear about the tradeoffs that make it that way. For example, as I’ve written before, Missouri has a very low student-to-teacher ratio—11.3 students per teacher. If Missouri increased this ratio, it could increase teacher pay. As I wrote, “If Missouri were to match Illinois’ ratio of 14.3, Missouri teachers could realize a 26.5% increase in their salaries.”
As it turns out, teachers may prefer to be paid more and have higher class sizes. Fucshman, McGee, and Zamarro find more teachers would prefer to add three students to their class and get a higher salary (78% of respondents) than to have three fewer students and lower pay (65%).
The conversation in Missouri has almost exclusively been “We need to increase teacher pay.” A more robust conversation would consider this and other trade-offs we’ve built into our systems.