Monday, September 19, 2005

 

Listening to Teachers Complain

It's hard for me to sit and listen to complaining for very long. I was raised in a family and community culture that viewed complaining as one of the least desirable means to the end of solving a problem.

Now, I'm all for a good rant, but complaining is different. Complaining, to me, is either an immature way of asking for help, or a last resort when dealing with customer support at the phone company, as we've discussed before.

Once again, I was "treated" to a long-winded, negative soliloquay on how poorly teachers are paid, how hard their job is, and how evil people in Sacramento, California would even think of making any change whatsoever to teachers' pension benefits.

Now, there are literally hundreds of articles and probably thousands of talk radio shows that have expounded upon this issue at length. I hardly have any hope of accurately and completely summarizing all the salient issues and points that the teachers' union, taxpayers, parents, children, and teachers themselves care about or should care about. However, this sort of challenge has never stopped me before, so here's my quick take on it.

According to the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Salary Survey, California tops the list in teacher salary.

http://www.aft.org/salary/2003/download/2003Table1.pdf

Now, salary comparisons are extremely complicated. Using adjusted vs. unadjusted dollars, accounting for the fact that teachers are contracted for 10 months of the year, and factoring in district size, urbanization, and geographical region, you can spin the numbers almost any way you like. However, it's hard to see that teachers are "underpaid" when they make more than nurses, more than members of the police force, about as much as many computer-related professionals, and they make well over the average for all workers.

Since the definition of "underpaid" is fraught with controversy, let's talk about the specific reason I'm amused at the members of my family that teach. Yesterday, I heard the complaint that someone in the family who teaches middle school got "only" six weeks off last summer. It turns out that they went to a couple of teaching conferences. Six weeks sounds pretty darn good to me, and I'll tell you why. The average number of days of vacation that Americans took between 2000-2005 varied between 10 and 13. Complaining about six weeks seems... well, self-serving.

No one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to teach. If the pay is too low for you, then find another field or another position. But be prepared for a big shock to your system, because a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation stated that 38 percent of all full-time workers spend 50 or more hours on the job each week. The reason given for this is that there are more workers in managerial and professional positions where the extra hours are considered just part of the job. This was/is definitely true in engineering jobs like Qualcomm, Apiary, Sequal, etc.

Imagine 50ish hours of work a week, and less than two weeks off a year. No spring break, no long Christmas Holiday, none of those extra bank-type holidays, and no breaks during the day. No "prep periods", little to no job security, low probability of any type of union muscle, probably no pension at all, and just try to leave at 5pm. You'll see how quick you're replaced in a post-bubble economy. Grading papers? Try working nights and weekends to keep up with baseline expectations year-round for a decade or two, then get back to me about how onerous grading papers really is.

Everyone in the US works too much and gets paid too little. Complaining incessantly about your particular job is exceedingly bad form, and shows that you don't have a grip on reality and lack the good sense to buckle down and join the club.

Another teacher in the family actually compared her hours to her banker husband. I thought that was pretty funny, a teacher comparing herself to banker's hours, and coming out ahead. They didn't seem to get the humor, though. I laughed.

It's like this every single time we have a family gathering. I have never heard any of these family members say anything positive about teaching. It's uniformly negative, and no other opinions are allowed. There is no way to express anything positive about teaching, or to state an opinion different than the extremely rigidly presented "reality" that these people describe, or to change the subject without sending them into a mini-rant about how "people don't understand how HARD and UNDERPAID teaching is!"

When certain other family members retired after 35 years, they got pension benefits of 55% of their ending salary.

The formula for workers covered by the California Public Employees' Retirement System is 2 percent of pay times years of service for those who retire at age 55 and 2.5 percent for those who retire at age 63. For teachers covered by the California State Retirement System, the formula is 2 percent of pay for those retiring at age 60 and 2.4 for those retiring at age 63. Those with 30 or more years of service get a bonus, although the pension can't exceed 2.4 percent of pay. So let's say you worked 35 years as a teacher and retire at age 60. 35 * 2% = 70%. Let's say you retired at 63. Let's use the maximum 2.4% * 35 = 84%. Doesn't sound too bad to me. Your pension is also often based off your best year, depending on which system you work under, and not like the private sector, where it's an average of the last 3-5 years of work. This is usually, but not always, inclusive of highest-paid years.

Since California's pension obligations have risen from $160 million in 2000 to $2.6 billion this year, something Wicked This Way Comes. Either take a hit in your pension now, when you have a chance to participate in the restructuring of your pension system, or take the hit later, when the state bankrupts itself paying pension benefits that are the best in the country. We're living on borrowed time here due to enormous expansions of spending during the internet bubble years. The spending didn't stop after the market corrected itself. The expansion was enormous, and teachers were one of the top beneficiaries of this increased spending.

From US News and World Report article on California back in 2003:

"In good economic times, governments got into the all-too-easy habit of increasing spending faster than the economy was growing. State government spending was up 39 percent from 1996 to 2001. In the four years Davis has been governor, California's annual budget has soared from $74 billion to $99 billion, a 34 percent increase. For a time, that spending increase was fueled by the Silicon Valley boom: Capital gains yielded $17 billion to California in fiscal year 2000. But did California's politicians and budget analysts really think tech stocks would soar forever? From fiscal year 2000 to 2001, state spending rose 14 percent even as the high-tech sector plunged downward. One of the lessons of California's woes is that progressive taxes, which may be desirable for public-policy reasons, produce dangerously volatile revenue streams--huge amounts in good years, next to nothing when the stock market is falling. States that rely on progressive taxes should be especially careful not to overspend when revenue comes gushing in."

I didn't hear teachers complain 1996-2000 about spending increases. The only thing you see teachers' advocacy groups talk about here is "in the last four years" and "over the past four years" and "since 2001". Why? Because if you cut off the chart from before 2000-2001, it makes things look a bit different.

Here's a bit from the "California Teacher's Association Talking Points on Special Election"

http://www.californiafordemocracy.com/?q=savecalifornia/ctatalkingpoints

"In the last four years, California schools have suffered more than $9.8 billion in cuts. Statewide, these cuts translate to school closures, increases in class size, lay offs of teachers and support staff, and a devastating shortage of librarians, counselors and nurses. Many schools lack basic supplies and instructional materials. Schools are cutting art and music programs, extracurricular activities are no longer affordable, and after-school programs have been decimated."

Makes it sound really dismal, right?

Well, the NEA paints a different picture.

http://www.nea.org/goodnews/ca01.html

Go towards the bottom in the brief "bad news" section. "Public School Spending Has Declined: Public education spending per pupil has declined in California. Since 2001, per pupil spending in constant dollars has declined by 1%. "

That's not a misprint. That's 1%. Essentially, spending in California seems to have been held largely constant since the explosion of spending in the late 90s. The "9.8 billion in cuts" is a numbers game, playing with dollars that come from various sources, like not counting dollars that are no longer coming from the state, but come from the feds, changes in spending calculations due to NCLB, etc.

Yes, we're a populous state. Yes, we have a very challenging student population that includes a large number of non-native-english-speakers. Yes, we have an average of 23 students per classroom.

But, I have to say, the Culture of Malcontent here among teachers is embarrassing. Grow up, change jobs, or develop a positive attitude about your vocation. If all of these things fail, then please keep your polluted thinking to yourself, or else be prepared for me to vent poisonous diatribes about Evil Marketing Droids, fickle consumers, the HB-1 Visa mess, and the outsourcing of high-tech jobs overseas in return. If that's not enough, let me rant endlessly about the implosion of tech firms like Motorola, Lucent, the massive layoffs, and the erosion of wages for engineers when accounting for the hours and hours and hours of extra work we are expected to put in, and how impossible it is to keep our education current when science and technology seems to be moving at speeds faster than light. If I ranted like my family members rant, then we'd all be depressed. How come I have the good manners to keep most of that to myself under almost all circumstances, but *you* family members who know not who you are, *you* seem to feel completely at ease corrupting even the most informal family gathering with your ongoing misery? What gives you the special right to have "more important" misery than me? Nothing! Why ruin a birthday party with your self-indulgent whining? Do you not get enough attention at home?

Most engineers will not become wealthy. They will probably become comfortable. They will, on average, have to change job situations multiple times, and they often have to relocate. Engineering jobs are not uniformly distributed over the US at all. There are hotspots, and then there are vast regions of underemployment. Don't want to move? Sorry, too bad. Don't like getting laid off on short notice? Get over it. Don't like working on things that you'd never use? Tough! Uncomfortable with the idea of self-teaching yourself stuff at or above the University level on your own time? You better start reading.

Each job has its challenges, its rewards, and its own quirks of culture. I cannot believe that teaching is that miserable here in California. If it was, then 300,000 plus people are voluntarily submitting themselves to hyperbolic torture on a scale almost unimaginable. Life isn't fair and things are tough all over. Work to make your situation better, and if you are not happy, then find another situation.

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