Making a Job Worse Is a Brilliant Strategy for Attracting the Best Talent

The discussion about the Chicago strike is filled with people parsing the numbers about how much teachers make and whether it is too little or too much or just right. But having that conversation is conceding exactly the point we shouldn’t concede. It assumes that, for public employees and no one else, there is a certain amount that is just too much for the job. If you run a sex toy factory and make $250K a year, you’re a lion of capitalism. If you drive a city bus and you claw your way up to $38K a year, well, you’re a lucky ducky who has got to be put in his or her place.

So here’s Ezra Klein, doing his typically noncommittal thing, giving us his estimates of what Chicago public school teachers make. There’s a very direct and simple question, inspired by Corey Robin: how much do you make, Ezra? I’m willing to bet that Ezra Klein makes more than the median Chicago public teacher. I’m willing to bet that he in fact makes significantly more. I’m willing to bet that Klein makes something like what a lot of educated, upwardly-mobile young professionals living in Chicago make– the ones who, we are all supposed to assume, should be making several times what their peers who go to teach in inner city schools make.

Is what Klein makes too much? People will tell you that’s an absurd question, since he’s a journalist. I don’t begrudge Klein a dime of what he makes. I almost certainly want him to pay more of it back in taxes, but then I imagine that he thinks his own tax rates are too low. The point is: Ezra Klein is allowed, in our culture, to pursue as high a wage as he can. Public sector employees in general and teachers in particular are extended no such luxury. The question is both moral (do we value our teachers and our public employees, and do they have the right to pursue the best standard of living they can achieve) and practical (how can we claim to value education while working tirelessly to make educating a worse career). Leaving aside the ugly optics of legions of DC and NYC journos and pundits clucking their tongues at public servants who make much less than they do– this is supposed to make teaching a more attractive profession… how, exactly?

People believe that we are suffering from a lack of talent and drive in our teacher ranks. As you all know, I don’t agree, and I find the empirical evidence far, far more indicative of student-side demographic effects causing poor educational performance. But suppose the other side is correct. How the fuck are we going to fix a talent deficit when the self-same people work relentlessly to make teaching a less attractive profession? There’s a simple reality facing any talented, driven young graduate who is considering teaching as a profession: you know that our media and our politicians are always going to want to make your job worse. That’s reality. We have had decades of educational discourse dominated by the idea that our teachers are shiftless, incompetent swindlers. What rational person would prefer that over the alternatives available to people who are smart and hardworking?

I taught a brilliant young biology major a couple years ago. He mentioned in office hours once that he had always been attracted to teaching. I pressed him on why he didn’t consider the profession. And, being a polite kid, he deflected. Because of course, why on earth would he pursue a profession that pays next to nothing compared to what he could get in the private sector, where the benefits are getting relentlessly eroded, and where politicians and writers will hound you for life from their comfortable positions in DC and New York? I know, I know: the children, the children. Yes, some teachers work because they are inspired to create positive change. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not a plan. That is not a recipe for a teaching corps of the size we need in this country. (Here’s a wild idea: send Klein, Dylan Matthews, Reihan Salam, Matt Yglesias, Josh Barro, etc., out to teach in inner city public schools. I wonder why they aren’t out there now, since they care so very much for the children?)

The reality is that you can’t be pro-education and anti-educator. Not just in the sense that you shouldn’t be, ethically, although I certainly believe that. I mean the notion that you can say that you care about education while working relentlessly to attack our actual teachers is nonsensical. If you want to attack our teachers as “overpaid,” OK. Go ahead. But you don’t get to pretend that you give a shit about education. If you don’t have a problem with celebrity dog trainers who make 7 figures or personal stylists who make $5,000 a consultation or people who sell artisanal moonshine for $400 a bottle, but you have a problem with teachers working in one of the most difficult teaching environments in the country making $75K a year, hey, alright. But save me the platitudes. Save me your chest-beating and your weeping for the children, the children. Quality health insurance, pensions, job security, a strong union to represent your self-interest: these are the only tools we have to attract people into this profession, when so many other educated professions make so much more. Advocate the end of those benefits and you declare yourself an enemy of education. You make it plain that you don’t actually value it with the only currency we care about in this culture, hard cash. You are saying that you don’t really value what you say you value. Period.

In this capitalist system of ours, what people make is a statement about how much society values what they do. Honey Boo Boo Child will make more this year than most Chicago teachers, and our friends in the media think they make too much. That’s all you need to know. If you think that people should be willing to teach for less, than shut your mouth and go apply to teach in Chicago yourself.

Update: The post in question was written by Dylan Matthews, not Ezra Klein; it ran under Klein’s Wonkbook section at the WaPo. I apologize for the error.

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