I almost didn't get past the second sentence of Nicholas Kristof's brilliant NY Times essay this morning, as he opened with mention of Wisconsin and the ?pernicious fallacy? he?said the fracas there had generated: that teachers are over-paid. ?I didn't know that was the takeaway, but it's a worthwhile deception if it tempts education traditionalists to read this gem of a story.?

Kristof doesn't tread new ground here, but he dexterously handles three important issues at the heart of the teacher problem:? the talent gap, the salary gap, and the union practices which exacerbate the two.? And admitting that he's a ?novice? on education issues, the?veteran columnist?also has a refreshingly perceptive sidebar blog post in which he explains the origins of his new curiosity about the subject:

My interest in education arises from its role as a long-term driver of economic competitiveness and its role as an effective tool to chip away at poverty. In general, anti-poverty programs in America haven't been enormously effective, and increasingly I've come to believe that education (early childhood, k-12 and tertiary) is among the tools that really can work. The best study of this is ?Race Between Education and Technology,? by two Harvard economists, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz ? a dense but hugely important book.

Thanks to clear-headed writers like Kristof, we'll get to a good education place faster.? Playing off the McKinsey report on ?Closing the Talent Gap,?? he describes?the profound disruption in the profession caused by a mass exodus of talented teachers.? (See my post on Carnegie's new teacher talent initiative.) ?These days,? writes Kristof, ?brilliant women become surgeons and investment bankers ? and 47 percent of America's kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers come from the bottom one-third of their college classes (as measured by SAT scores).? ?

Economists Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh described the problem pretty succinctly?in a 2005 Ed Next report:

First, within the teaching profession, the pay scale of public school teachers has become increasingly compressed since the 1960s. The salary distribution has narrowed so that those with the highest aptitude earn no more than those with the lowest. This may have pushed able women out of the field of education.

Second, outside of teaching, college-educated women have achieved greater parity in their pay vis-? -vis male workers, luring more able women to alternative professions. High-aptitude women may have pulled away from education in order to take special advantage of the new opportunities.

Hoxby and Leigh concluded that school districts needed ?to reward teachers in the same way that college graduates are paid in other professions, that is, according to their performance.??

That seems like such a long time ago.

Kristof gets there, citing Eric Hanushek's findings that an excellent teacher ?raises each student's lifetime earnings by $20,000? and criticizing teacher unions for using ?their clout to gain job security more than pay, thus making the field safe for low achievers.?? Kristof understands the crucial connections between better pay, better quality and the need to radically restructure the profession to get them: ?

Teaching is unusual among the professions in that it pays poorly but has strong union protections and lockstep wage increases. It's a factory model of compensation, and critics are right to fault it. But the bottom line is that we should pay teachers more, not less ? and that politicians who falsely lambaste teachers as greedy are simply making it more difficult to attract the kind of above-average teachers our above-average children deserve.

It surely may be true that teachers are not overpaid. But, thanks in part to the battles like those being waged in Wisconsin, we've got a better understanding of the role the unions have played in keeping those wages low.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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