Okay, Boomer: Why Mark Weber’s Argument Won’t Convince Millennials and Gen Z’ers To Become Teachers.

Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman, just published a paper at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a sequel to a paper he published in September. The theme of both is that New Jersey is in grave danger of not having enough high-quality teachers to fill classrooms. Why? Prospective employees are shunning careers as educators because salaries are too low, our pension system is shaky, and teachers don’t get enough respect. 

I agree with all of that: Effective teachers deserve more money, a healthy deferred compensation system, and tons more esteem. I also agree that we need a more diverse teaching force and that it was a mistake for the New Jersey Department of Education to eliminate “alternative route” teaching licenses. And I don’t dispute his basic premise: “Fewer workers in New Jersey are electing to enter teacher preparation programs, a clear indication that teaching is not as attractive a career option as it once was.” (At least in in STEM and special education: The Department of Education found that “20 states and the District of Columbia produced over twice as many elementary-education graduates as they had elementary-teaching positions to fill.”)

I do, however, take issue with his habit of cherry-picking facts, the political subtext that undermines his research, his non-disclosure of where he got his funding, and his disregard for the career-choice values between us old Baby Boomers and Millennials and Generation X/Y/Z’ers who make up our new pool of prospective teachers. So let’s go through a few of the assumptions he makes about the future of “one of the best education systems in the country.”

Weber’s September report, also published by NJPP, was thoroughly dissected by Mike Lilley at Sunlight Policy Center. One example: Weber claims (and repeats in the new report) that “there is a significant gap in wages between New Jersey teachers and other college-educated workers in the state, even when accounting for differences in time worked.” Here’s Lilley on what Weber gets wrong:

Even taken on its own terms, the most important factor in Weber’s case for a wage gap is the value of academic degrees.  Because almost all teachers have bachelor degrees, they are compared to private-sector workers with bachelor’s degrees…but not all bachelor’s degrees have the same economic value. [R]oughly half of all teachers have bachelor’s degrees in education, which have substantially less economic value than engineering and science degrees.  A recent Bankrate study found that the top 50 most remunerative college majors ALL came from science, technology, engineering, business and finance.  The top 12 – all engineering and science majors – averaged a median income of $87,200 per year.  The 12 education-related degrees ranked from 83rdto 135th (out of 162 majors) and averaged a median income of $46,700 – 46 percent less than what the top 12 degrees earned.  Clearly, the market differentiates between the economic value of these degrees.  Yet Weber and the EPI studies he cites just assume that they are equal and make no effort to adjust for the differing economic values.

Lilley adds,“ teachers are actually compensated MORE per hour than other full-time employees.”

Let’s move to the new report, which makes claims that are only true if time were to stand still.

Yes, enrollment in teacher prep programs is declining. Is the only reason because pay is too low and teachers get no respect?

No. One other possible reason — one I think is more likely — is that young adults (I have four of my own) have little interest in career stability. They’re all about career mobility.

  • From one report on the job habits of Millennials: “The careers literature tends to accept that high career mobility has become the ‘new normal’“
  • One more: “Members of Gen Y have grown up in a world of constant technological and societal change. They realize that doing things the way they have always been done simply won’t continue to work.”

Given that mindset, why in the world would young people commit to a career where the only way to get salary raises is to inch up a back-loaded salary guide and where deferred compensation doesn’t kick in until years down a road they won’t travel? Why is Weber (and other NJEA lobbyists) trying to perpetuate a model that actively disincentivizes young people from entering the teaching profession? This new generation doesn’t want defined-benefits plans like pensions. They want defined-contribution plans like 401K’s which allow them to start collecting deferred compensation from the get-go and that move with them from job to job. 

But Weber is stuck in Baby Boomer land. He writes,“New Jersey must shore up its pension system…The state must take steps to reverse the eroding value of retirement and health care benefits for teachers.” 

Yet he declines to mention that, according to TPAF’s 2018 Actuarial Valuation Report, 40-45 percent of teachers leave the profession before being fully vested in the pension system. He waging a war — along with NJEA lobbyists for an ever-smaller group of aging beneficiaries.

Instead, if New Jersey wants to attract more highly-effective teachers it needs to throw the current salary guides in the trash heap — new teachers don’t start getting meaningful raises until they’ve stuck around a long time — and change our defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution plan that our newly-mobile workforce tucks in their back pocket when they inevitably move to their next job. (These changes might also upgrade the current talent pool which McKinsey describes as drawing from the “lower-performing graduates in contrast to the best performing countries in the world.”)

And let’s get real: New Jersey’s teacher pension system is shot. Here’s a chart recently created by John Bury who notes elsewhere that if TPAF loses 15% this year, “New Jersey’s teachers’ pension system would find itself with a mere 30 percent of the assets necessary to cover its long-term costs, and with an unfunded liability of more than $40 billion.”

Finally, I’d point Weber to another climate shift that he fails to acknowledge: America’s birth rate is dropping. We’re producing fewer potential students and, as time marches on, we’ll need fewer teachers, not more. In New Jersey in particular, the Total Fertility Rate has fallen from 2.09 in 2007 to only 1.8 today, the 15th lowest in America.

  • On falling birthrates: “As alarming as these raw data are, what concerns demographers even more is the downturn in the ‘total fertility rate,’ which estimates the number of children the typical woman is likely to have over the course of her lifetime. From 2007 to 2017, that rate fell from 2.12 to 1.76—an astounding 17 percent decline. Anything under 2.1 means we’ve fallen below the replacement rate, indicating that, without immigration, population shrinkage will follow. And immigration rates are down somewhat, too.”
  • Hechinger Report:  The declining birthrate “could mean 8.5 percent fewer public school students a decade from now…The number of high school students is expected to fall by 6.8 percent or 1 million students from 15.4 million students in 2022 to 14.3 million students in 2028. That’s an indication of how the whole system might lose students. ‘If it does come true, we’re going to see massive changes,’ said Mike Griffith, a school finance specialist at the Education Commission of the States, a think tank that aims to inform education policy. ‘Nobody is talking about this.’”
  • An example from Michigan:  “We are dealing with declining enrollment across the state,” said Peter Spadafore, associate executive director of Michigan Association of School Superintendents and Administrators. ‘It’s not an isolated problem, and it has less and less to do with school choice and less and less to do with out-migration, and more and more to do with with birth rates.'”

Mark Weber and NJPP should have the capacity to recognize new trends and integrate them into policy briefs and research papers. If their goal (which I share) is to elevate teaching into a profession that garners respect, fair compensation, and is the choice among our best and brightest, why would they advocate for policies unattractive to new professionals? And why would those policies align so closely with those of New Jersey’s teacher union, NJEA?

It’s the money, stupid.

More specifically, it’s the money that NJEA gives to both Weber and NJPP.

I don’t know how much money Weber earns from NJEA or its affiliates like Education Law Center and The National Education Policy Center. But NJPP is a 501(c)(3), a non-profit that has to be pretty transparent with the IRS. While the most recent financial information on its website is a 2014 -2015, audit, I was able to find more recent funding. From 2013-2017 NJEA gave NJPP $695,000.

Then again, maybe Weber and NJPP really believe that all we need to do to attract more teachers is higher pay and secure pension systems. But to do that we’d need to go back to a time when professionals stayed put, pensions were secure, and birthrates were high.

Weber needs to stop looking in the rearview mirror because the world has moved on. There’s no way to square what he says he values — higher pay, more respect —with a backloaded compensation system that discourages young people from entering the teacher profession. Okay, Boomer?

What do you think?

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