Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Good Idea

At some point, I thought about doing this. As with many of my ideas, I never got around to it. It is still a good idea though (from Crooked Timber):

So, a PhD dissertation for an economist; calculate how much more we would have to spend on employing teachers now in order to attract the talent that used to go into teaching.

The idea motivating this question is that restrictions on female labor participation increased the average quality of workers in "female" occupations (like teaching or nursing). Reducing barriers to female employment allowed talented women to take higher paying jobs in other sectors. While real wages for teachers doubled between 1950 and 1990, I (and the author of the question above) wonder if this increase was enough to maintain average teacher quality (the author clearly believes that this wasn't enough)?

Update -- The Hanushek and Rifkin paper behind the link for the change in real teacher wages provides a rough sense of the problem in Table 6. In 1940, 52.5 percent of male college graduate non-teachers made less than the average male teacher, and 68.7 percent of female college graduates made less than the average female teacher. In 1990, the percentage of male and female college graduates making less than the average teacher had fallen to 36.5 and 45.3 percent respectively.

In Table 7, they present the results of an attempt to decompose the source of the change in teachers relative earnings into 4 groups -- pure wage changes, changes in the educational level of non-teachers, changes in the overall age distribution, and relative changes in the teacher's age distribution. Not surprisingly, most of the decline is attributed to pure wage declines.

To the extent that those who would otherwise be high quality teachers choose to take higher paying non-teaching jobs, these pure wage declines have likely lowered the average quality of teachers.

I further wonder how a potential decline in teacher quality interacts with the growth in school enrollment. A much higher proportion of the population stays in school now (i.e., the dropout rate is lower). Most of these additional students are (likely) from the bottom part of the ability distribution. Do we require higher or lower ability teachers to teach these students? If we are ok with teachers serving a babysitting function, then I guess this might be ok. Or if lower ability students still learn as much as they can from "lower quality" teachers. However, if lower quality students require even higher ability teachers, then this potential trend is of serious concern.

More -- This paper by Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab argues that while the average aptitude of female teachers did not decline much from 1957 to 1992, the propensity of those in the top of the distribution to become teachers declined dramatically. They state, "the likelihood that a female from the top of her high school class will eventually enter teaching has fallen dramatically from 1964 to 1992 by our estimation, from almost 20% to under 4%."

This paper by Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh, however, argues wage compression that lowers the returns to teaching ability is more to blame than the growth of opportunities in other sectors. The abstract:

There are two main hypotheses for the decline in the aptitude of public school teachers since 1960: improved job opportunities for females in other occupations and the compression of teaching wages owing to unionization. Using data on several college graduating cohorts from 1961 to 1997, we investigate both hypotheses. To separate the hypotheses, we exploit the fact that states varied considerably in the progress of unionization and female wage parity. We proxy for a teacher's aptitude with the mean college aptitude of students at her undergraduate college. We identify the effects of unionization using laws that legalized and facilitated teachers' unionization. The evidence suggests that compression of teaching wages is responsible for about three-quarters of the decline in teacher aptitude. Females' opportunities in alternative occupations do matter, but opportunities improved rather similarly for females of all aptitudes. Although alternative occupations drew women out of teaching in general, they did not have a sufficiently disproportionate effect on high aptitude women to explain the bulk of the decline in teachers aptitude.

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