An article in this week's Tacoma News Tribune points out that in the state of Washington, high school math and science teachers get paid less, on average, than teachers of other disciplines. The assumption--not backed up by research or widespread observation--is that math and science teachers are lured away to more lucrative careers in the high tech industry and therefore do not stay in teaching as long.
Besides that, this study by Jim Simpkins, Marguerite Roza, and Cristina Sepe and produced by the University of Washington's Center for Reinventing Public Education raises several valid points about teacher compensation. However, it is what the study does not include that concerns me most.
The study details discrepancies between the pay secondary math and science teachers earn versus other disciplines. Since pay is on average lower, and since teacher pay in Washington is based on a credits-earned-and-time-served scale, the resulting conclusion is that math and science teachers don't stick around long enough to earn higher pay. The implied reason is that the labor market for people with degrees in math and science bears more lucrative opportunities outside education than within it and thus draws good teachers from the profession. That seems like a reasonable conclusion--but what is missing is data to support this cause-and-effect relationship.
The study offers a cause for its effect, without actually providing research to verify that the lucrative tech job market is in fact the cause of teacher turnover. No evidence is offered, anecdotal or otherwise, to prove that these teachers were drawn away from teaching by a more lucrative paycheck in the tech sector or that the teachers who left actually ended up making more money elsewhere. There is simply no proof that the money was the reason these teachers left the profession. Heck, I teach ninth graders: fourteen- and fifteen-year olds. I drive home every day with dozens of reasons to quit teaching.
Maybe they didn't want to teach any more? That happens.
The assumption that these math and science teachers were "worth more" than teaching is just an assumption unsupported by data; an assumption based solely on a perception of the job market rather than a quantitative study of it. Simpkins offers the News Tribune offers the shaky correlation between turnover rates and geographical proximity to Microsoft's campus. That's not data. I'd be more convinced by data which shows not only where these lost teachers went but also how much more or less their paychecks were as a result of their choice.
This is far too complicated--and too potentially costly--a topic to base conclusions on an analysis of the state salary schedule (which is what the CRPE's report really is). As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I had several peers who went into teaching because there were not jobs in the science and technology industries they were interested in. They were counseled toward teaching because they were told by academic advisers that a few years of teaching made them more appealing to many employers than a post-graduation blank slate.
Perhaps these teachers only intended to teach for a short time, using the position as a stepping stone toward something else? Who knows, there's no data.
Should high school science and math teachers be paid more than other disciplines in order to compete within the broader labor market? I'd be all for it if there were convincing data to prove that we are in fact losing good teachers because of the reasons implied in the study.
To me, though, there simply needs to be more data. Simpkins, Roza, and Sepe have a good start, but they need to take their research further. Find those teachers who left. Ask them not only why they left but also about their actual passion for teaching. It is certainly possible that they were persuaded by more money--but if they left, perhaps there was more to it than finances--perhaps teaching just wasn't their bag. The last thing we need are teachers who stick around even though they don't want to be there. Maybe the real problem isn't that the tech job market is great but that the liberal arts job market is weak--thus leaving all those disenfranchised less valuable teachers to rot away in their classrooms for decades with no other opportunities...