Quit Rates Suggest Teachers Are Doing Just Fine

Teacher unions are insisting that teachers are grossly underpaid and need a raise in salary, but the data supporting these claims doesn't quite hold up.

When North Carolina teachers joined a growing list of recent teacher protests and walked out earlier this month, objecting to their low pay, it was a little odd. North Carolina teachers make about $46,000 a year, the same as the state’s average wage. It’s not a high salary, but it’s certainly not a low one. Why do they need more money?

Across the U.S., teacher unions say it’s because teaching is hard and students deserve the very best. They say higher salaries are needed so they can attract good teachers. They say because teachers are underpaid, current teachers will leave for greener pastures. But the quit rates say otherwise.

The Benefits of a Job Go Beyond Salary

The question about whether teachers are underpaid or not quickly devolves into an endless back-and-forth:

  • “$46,000 a year isn’t much to live on.”
  • “But they also have job security and a pension.”
  • “But some have to pay for their own school supplies.”
  • “But they get a summer vacation.”
  • “But they don’t get paid for that.”
  • “But they get paid a yearly salary, and it’s a huge block of time with no obligations.”
  • “But some use that time to prepare for the upcoming academic year.”
  • “But others don’t.”

These conversations never go anywhere.

Economists have long recognized that compensation takes many forms. A fulfilling job or one with a lot of job security can still attract qualified candidates even if the pay is low. Safety and job satisfaction compensate for the low salary. With all the non-pecuniary benefits working in education has, not much can be learned from looking only at salary data.

Make no mistake, this is the important question: do teachers stay at these jobs or not?

To determine if higher pay is really required to get good teachers, what you need is a metric that captures all the pluses and minuses of working in public education. If you want to understand if teachers are underpaid or overpaid, the quit rate relative to other industries is far more relevant than salary.

Make no mistake, this is the important question: do teachers stay at these jobs or not? If they leave in great droves, then that suggests there really are greener pastures, and maybe teachers should be paid more so they’ll stay. But if teachers regularly stay put, then paying them more is just a waste of money. There’s nothing greener for them to flock to.

Public Education Jobs Are Some of the Greenest of Pastures

People quit for a lot of reasons. Some get bored and want to change careers or switch cities. Others leave so they can follow their spouses to a new life. Changes in management can transform a great job into something truly awful. Sometimes the nature of work drifts in an undesirable direction. Sometimes a better job comes along and staying put would incur a significant opportunity cost.

The low quit rate in public education tells us that the total benefits of these jobs are so high, workers will stay even when there are strong reasons to leave.

The costs of staying are always weighed against the benefits of staying. Sometimes, the costs become so high as to tip the scales, and the employee leaves. This is why quit rates follow a predictable pattern, decreasing during recessions (when alternatives are rare) and increasing during recoveries (when alternatives are abundant).

But public sector education work (and government work, in general) has mostly untippable scales. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2017 quit rate of state and local government education workers was 42 percent lower compared to their private education counterparts. Only federal workers had a lower quit rate than teachers. The public education pastures are so green, few want to leave. Yet teacher unions think that the pastures should be even greener.

The low quit rate in public education tells us that the total benefits of these jobs are so high, workers will stay even when there are strong reasons to leave. There is no doubt that some teachers get tired of the work or develop a desire to change cities. Some teachers surely endure particularly bad bosses or particularly burdensome bureaucracy. Just like in the private sector, some teachers must be tempted to leave. But the benefits of staying are just too great. Public education workers aren’t underpaid. They are overpaid.

2017 Quit Rates by Industry

Sector

Industry

Quit Rate (%)

Public

State & Local Government, Education

8.7

State & Local Government, non-Education

10.3

Federal

6.7

Private

Construction

26.2

Education and Health

21.5

    Education only

15.2

    Health only

22.7

Financial Activities

16.2

Information

19.1

Leisure and Hospitality

49.4

Manufacturing

18.5

Mining and Logging

26.0

Professional Business Services

37.7

Trade, Transportation & Utilities

28.7

Other Services

24.7

Source: Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics

But It’s Complicated

It would be a mistake to think that’s the end of the conversation. The BLS quit rates are clumsy aggregates which can mask important nuances.

Aggregation can hide other complexities.

For example, while teachers are a sizable part of state and local government education, they’re also lumped together with college faculty and support staff across the education spectrum. Those workers might be the ones who love their jobs too much to leave. The low quit rates of professors and staff obfuscate a much higher quit rate for primary and secondary teachers (though I somehow doubt professors and staff would agree that they are the ones who are overpaid).

Aggregation can hide other complexities. Underpayment might be regional or limited to a handful of subjects. Individual states, especially smaller states, might have big problems that national statistics can’t capture. And while teachers might rarely leave some subjects, it might happen regularly in others.

But none of this nuance is ever even mentioned by advocates of higher salaries.

So, it’s far from certain that teachers are underpaid. But this complexity means we shouldn’t just throw more money at education. If only certain subjects are underpaid, why should all teachers get a raise? If only some states short-change educators, why do all protesting teachers get kneejerk support? If other public-sector education workers are the problem, why not re-allocate those funds rather than naively increase everyone’s budget?

These numbers suggest at least some people in public education are grossly overcompensated. It might be the teachers, but it might not be. We need more data. Helpful information besides more detailed quit rates includes how often positions are left unfilled (such as in the sciences and special education) and the number of applicants per job opening.

But none of this nuance is ever even mentioned by advocates of higher salaries. They conveniently stick to salary, a particularly deceptive metric in this context. It’s high time we upgrade the conversation. When it comes to showing that teachers are underpaid, teacher unions have a lot to learn.

Further Reading

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