The teaching labour market

Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan’s valuable paper on school productivity (pdf) received lots of media coverage today, including a page one story in The Australian. They find that numeracy fell over the period 1964 to 2003, and literacy and numeracy fell over the period 1975 to 1998. It is a loss of productivity because we have put more resources into schools but have achieved worse results. In particular, we have spent a lot of money reducing class sizes, though the Leigh and Ryan paper confirms previous research showing that this has no positive impact on test results.

What it does have a positive impact on is the teacher’s workload. Teaching attracts people interested in, by the standards of the professional labour force, a low number of work hours per year. At least implicitly, they have traded-off higher wages for less work. This trend is self-reinforcing, because it attracts to teaching more and more people who would rather have time off than earn more money, and their interests increasingly dominate the union’s bargaining strategy.

The ABS’s school statistics shows a significant decline in the proportion of teachers who are male, and who are likely to think of themselves as family breadwinners. Between 1986 and 2006 the proportion of teachers in government schools who are male dropped from 42% to 30%. The drop was less severe in private schools, from 37% to 33%, presumably because some private schools offer better salaries than government schools.

But since the education sector is dominated by lower-paying employers, it is hard to see that this trend is going to reverse itself. People considering teaching as a career cannot assume that they will get a job in a private school. And given that private schools are in a labour market with a preponderance of potential employees looking for short hours, they may be limiting their pool of potential applicants if they go against the trend to smaller class sizes. (The two sectors have very similar student:staff ratios, with the private schools have slightly more students per teacher in primary schools and slightly fewer in secondary schools.)

So while Andrew L is correct to point out that, educationally speaking, lower student:staff ratios are of no benefit, given the nature of the teacher labour market they are almost certainly here to stay.

43 thoughts on “The teaching labour market

  1. Marking, seeing students out of class time, dealing with parents. I can remember teachers complaining about having to mark at home – presumably one thing they are trying to avoid or minimise with small classes.


  2. Declining long-term productivity is a standard pattern of government ownership. An accepted truism of development economics, for example.

    If Eddie McGuire said “I’ve got a great idea, Collingwood will take over the AFL, set and rules and appoint the umpires” people would ask what he was smoking. The conflict of interest is obvious. But we apparently think Ministers for Education and Education bureaucrats are magical and not affected by the blatant conflict of interest in being both the rule setters and enforces AND the main producers upon which those rules operate.

    The point is not that (some) private schools are better than (some) government schools. The point is that the entire system is corrupted by this fundamental conflict of interest. The problems of regulator-run schools are ultimately not fixable and having a regulator corrupted by this fundamental and irredeemable conflict of interest also taints the private systems.


  3. I note that the study used 14 year olds. Given the massive rise in retention rates, it suggests that the decline in test scores for year 12 students would probably be much more marked. Teachers might complain that their overall hours have not declined in line with class sizes because time spent on parental management and administration have increased to more than offset any benefit.


  4. I’d love to see the real hours you are talking about here. We get the same comment about universities (in November, our students tell to us to enjoy our holidays as if we do nothing else! thanks!), but most of my colleagues work harder than my friends in the private sector (including working when they are sick and having far more constrained times they can actually have holidays). We also have to put up with hopeless infrastructure (everything is constantly broken — which appears true of almost every Australian university) and far more admistrivia and beuracracy due to woeful managment, which I can’t imagine is any different to schools, so you need add premium on your imagined estimated time (and morale) for the amount people waste through no fault of their own.
    The obvious reason for the productivity loss is that the really productive females have better job options now than the 1970. That would be true even if relative wages had remained the same, versus the decline we have seen. Thats the problem of not having such a sexist society — all the jobs where smart females were essentially subsidizing the rest of the community by doing are now not done by them. THey’re now often done by idiots instead, and whilst you complain about it, a better target of blame is all the cultural conditions which mean that some of the richest people on Earth are not willing to pay for a decent education for their children.


  5. Rajat – Though a decline caused by more people sitting the test is not a sign of failure in the system, though it does change the academic meaning of ‘completed Year 12’.

    Conrad – I agree, there is no way to replace the above-average ability women now doing something else.


  6. Conrad – Despite the constant complaints from academics about their workloads, apart from those combining management and academic jobs, and a relatively small number of highly productive researchers, I have trouble believing it is a major problem. I’m gazing across the U of M campus at 8.45am in the morning – only a handful of people to be seen. The CBD is bustling at this time with people arriving at work, many have long been at their desks. Like the students themselves, they have bursts of intense work, but it is less constant than in other jobs.

    I could not quickly find ABS data on actual hours worked for teachers, but for the education and training ‘industry’ only 24% worked 41 hours a week or more, the 14th lowest of the 20 industry groups.


  7. Andrew — Its logical not to come in to work in peak hour traffic if you don’t have to. In addition, work load is a huge problem — its just that in universities no-one cares if you save time by degrading what you are teaching and use innovative marking schemes that are quick to do (like multiple choice questions). By the looks of things, I think both the school and university sectors have essentially the same problems, its just that the public doesn’t care about the latter (and hence gets what they pay and ask for, which hasn’t been very pretty in the last few years).


  8. Andrew, true that a decline in test scores caused by an increase in the number (and capability range) of people sitting a test is not a sign of system failure per se. However, it does raise the issue of whether ‘dumbing down’ a universal curriculum is a better way to maximise overall productivity than a more streamed approach. I wonder if kids who simply ‘don’t get’ the three Rs by years 7-8 should effectively keep re-covering the same material using different approaches instead of holding back more able students from pursuing a more challenging curriculum in years 9-12.


  9. “lower student:staff ratios are of no benefit”

    Teacher work preferences aside, does this mean that instead of classes of 25, we should fire 2/3 of all teachers and have classes of 75? (Can’t fit 75 kids in one class room? No problem. Knock down a few walls and have big class rooms.)


  10. Think of what the flat bit in a function like x^3 looks like Spiros, and you should have your answer as to the effect of class size on performance.


  11. Spiros raises an interesting point about how little variation over time there seems to be in classroom practice. Would it be better to have highly effective teachers lecturing to much larger groups, and using teacher aides to help individual students and mark work?


  12. Andrew (and Spiros for that matter),

    I think you need to specify what groups you are talking about. If you are looking at the performance of 14 (year 8/9) year olds, then a lot of the difference you are looking at is thanks to their primary school teachers. I can’t imagine any single primary school teacher having 70 students (30 is really a lot in places where it is allowed). Bigger groups might perhaps work for older kids (probably the minority in the school system), but not younger ones. You also probably want to go into a school sometime. Lots of the classes kids have are not especially amenable to “lectures” like you have in universities (the way things are taught in primary school are nothing like you might remember from the 70s, and high schools are also somewhat different).
    Also, I imagine just having enough admin/IT staff in many schools would be the first preferance of many teachers, versus teacher’s aides (especially since the salaries of teacher’s aides would probably be not that much less than teachers), but I could be wrong. I might also note that in places like the UK, there are complaints that teacher’s aides often end up as defacto-teachers in some schools (even when they have no idea of what they are teaching), although I’m not sure of the prevelance/truth of this.


  13. Andrew, can you actually back up your claim that “Teaching attracts people interested in, by the standards of the professional labour force, a low number of work hours per year”?

    I’ve also read that many (if not most) teachers work about 40 weeks of the year, up to 50 hours a week – which isn’t any less than other workers.


  14. “In the week prior to census night 2001, 35% of Australian teachers had worked between 40 and 49 hours, and 19% had worked more than 50 hours.”

    – ABS.

    Unfortunately that doesn’t help work out the total average hours per year for teachers.

    The graph showing the drop-off of teacher salaries relative to all professional salaries is telling though.


  15. NPOV – I found that ABS link, though I don’t count 40 hours a week as long hours (certainly not by professional standards), and as you note this group needs a more annualised perspective.

    My claim is based on inference.

    * Women in general remain much less likely than men to work full-time. School teaching has become an increasingly feminised profession.

    * Teaching has long breaks that coincide with school holidays, ideal for mothers.

    * Industrial campaigns are focused on less work.


  16. 40 hours might be “long” hours, but how far off average hours for most professional is it? I’ve worked in the IT industry for over 10 years, get paid twice what most teachers do, and have rarely worked more than 40 hours in a week, nor have many of my colleagues through the years.

    Either way, your claim that anyone is attracted to the teaching profession *because* of the shorter hours is what concerned me the most. It doesn’t fit with what I know of many teachers.

    Oh, and the fact that women typically work less hours and that teachers are more typically women isn’t enough on its own to demonstrate that teaching itself typically means less hours.


  17. “Industrial campaigns are focused on less work.”

    Please read yesteraday’s paper — and if I dig into my memory, most of the campaigns I remember are basically for more pay. Lower student ratios etc. are usually used to appeal to the public (“think of the children…”).


  18. NPOV – You’re right, all my evidence is inferential or circumstantial. Having done some more research now there is some survey evidence of those thinking of becoming teachers that find that combining the job with family commitments is a factor. See here (pdf) and here (pdf, cites other papers that say the same thing).

    I’m not sure of average hours for professionals, but the census found 27% work more than 49 hours a week, with another 15% working 41-48 hours. Managers work the hardest – nearly half 49 hours a week or more.


  19. Conrad – From the AEU Victoria website:

    Stopwork Resolution
    Joint Primary and Secondary Sector Councils unanimously endorsed a resolution for ongoing action to achieve salary justice, reduce contracts and address workload.


  20. Andrew,

    I think they ask for everything usually — However, I think that better conditions are a side issue and they ask for them simply because they are easy to get (they appeal to the public). I could point to the 10% they want each year for the next 3 years. I might also point out that the recent TV ads (which presumably must have cost a bundle) where they compare teachers to other professions (if you’ve seen them), only mention money.
    One other thing I think people confuse is face-to-face teaching hours vs. workload. Its sure to be the case that workload is higher these days even if teaching hours were similar due things like more demanding parents (think of all that email the government told teachers they should respond to), more administrivia, more social work (the Queensland government told teachers they should be responsible for this for example), and so on. Looking at that the state of many schools, fighting with broken things should also be added. In this respect, it may simply be that they are trying to stabilize workloads versus reduce them.


  21. Andrew, unless I’m misreading that first PDF, it would appear to show that “Time for family” (the only proxy for “less work hours”) was a very low priority for those interested in becoming teachers. The second one indicated that students were more attracted to teaching once the lower hours were pointed out as a benefit, but that whiffs of “leading the witness”.


  22. NPOV – It would not be the only factor, but it showing as a factor in about half a dozen studies if we include those referred to in the article. I can’t imagine that it would show as a factor at all in too many professions other than teaching and nursing, two of the three overwhelmingly female university courses.


  23. I think the hours worked by teachers has a very wide distribution. I’ve known ones (yes, public school ones) for whom the job is absolutely their whole life, and others who are in it for the holdiays. And new teachers have to work notoriously long hours in preparation before they’ve got it all down pat.

    As an aside, IME the dedicated ones tend to be the most bolshie unionists, genuinely believing (perhaps correctly) that they are advancing their students’ interests that way. It’s a marked contrast to most other workplaces.

    Anyway, I don’t think you can infer the workload of either academics or teachers from their hours at the office because these days a great deal of their work is done at home.


  24. Andrew, perhaps – though I took up my current job as an IT professional because of the hours (I don’t have to travel). When my wife last was looking for a job (IT professional also), her primary concern was hours. In the end she took a full-time job because she couldn’t find one with less hours.


  25. (I suppose “primary concern” is techically incorrect. I wouldn’t have taken a job that paid $15/hr just for the sake of less hours. But the pay requirement was only up to the amount required to pay the mortgage etc. After that, hours became the primary concern.)


  26. NPOV – If my theory is wrong, we still need an explanation as to why unions who must know that their powerful employer has only so much it will spend on schools have, as Andrew L’s paper suggests, put most of the real increase in spending into student:staff ratios. We also need to explain why this workforce is so female and becoming more feminised.

    Sometimes it is harder to explain than to predict – I can’t see the mechanism that will get us out of small classes and low pay, even though this is not likely to be the best educational outcome.


  27. Yes, the fact that teaching is becoming “more” feminised is definitely interesting. You can’t put that down to biological differences in how male or female brains work.
    I wouldn’t even guess at a reason, though there’s certainly a number of testable hypotheses that can be made.


  28. Andrew, one of your main reasons for being so gloomy is that “People considering teaching as a career cannot assume that they will get a job in a private school.” Hence, even private schools are deterred from reversing the trend to shorter hours and lower pay. I’m not sure the lack of choice is true for good quality recruits these days. I think the bigger problem is that most parents do not or can not easily observe or assess teacher quality when they choose which school to send their kids to. This leads to a low premium on good teachers and a greater emphasis – even in private schools – on more easily observable indicators such as facilities and extra-curricular programmes.


  29. Andrew,

    I personally think the reason is obvious why unions ask for better conditions vs. salaries. It’s more publically palatable. Parents think their children will learn better in classes of, say, 20, than, say, 25 (even if the difference is basically zero — but they don’t know that), and also don’t like to see teachers get bigger rises than themselves (tall poppy syndrome — c.f. the moron view: “why should a bunch of dumb ass teachers be paid high amounts, especially when they’re all women?”). The other really obvious case of this is politician’s salaries where everything gets pumped into super. In some countries that do not have these social constraints, teachers, politicians, and academics get higher salaries (and have higher class sizes with teachers — although many private schools advertize low student ratios, evidentally appealing to ignorance). I might note that it still hasn’t stopped teaching remaining a very feminized workforce in those countries however. Thus higher salarizes do not appear to stop this trend.


  30. Gotta love a false premise when we see one! Teaching attracts people interested in less work.

    As a working teacher, I find that ridiculous. My working day starts at 7.30am five days per week and often finishes at around midnight.

    As to the perception of a fall in quality in teaching, I wonder whether it has anything to do with ill informed criticism being aired by people who believe they know why my colleagues and I do what we do?


  31. Caerd – What generates this work? Would lower class sizes make a difference? I should note that on the ABS statistics your hours are not typical.


  32. What an appalling number of assumptions! Will deal with hours of work only. I don’t put in as many as caerd but realize that it’s not just 8 to 4. It’s that plus an hour or two each night and probably another 4-5 on weekends. Then there’s the parent mtgs, other meetings …. just before school went back a few weeks ago I spent 4 whole days preparing Yr 12 work!! Speaking of which I have to prepare a yr12 lesson before I go to bed. It will take longer to prepare the lesson than to deliver it. Gimme a break! Get informed first. And I won’t even get onto the intensity of the work.


  33. “Get informed first.”

    OK. Rather than personal anecdotes, can you give us any industry-wide figures?

    I can’t recall any of the teachers that I know working such long hours.


  34. The idea of sacrifing conditions for pay (over the long term) is one of things that wrecked Australian universities, and I can’t imagine it doing any good for the school system. Thus I wouldn’t want teachers to trade pay for conditions, as you would end up with a system even worse than now.

    The basic problem is that the government can’t and never will pay industry equivalent salaries. This is compensated for by them trying to offer good conditions. This means in government jobs, you can appeal to a certain group of often quite competent people with good conditions and poor pay. With poor conditions and slightly better than poor pay, you are in competition with all of the industries out there that might not have very good conditions, but have much better pay rates.


  35. Jeremy: no I don’t have any research and I can’t point you towards any either. For myself I work about 50 hours a week for 40 weeks plus about another 40-50 hours in my “holidays”.

    Andrew Norton: I have already traded holidays for extra training: a Masters degree in my own time and at my own cost (some tax deductable) as well as many hours skilling myself up on ICT. I get no more pay now than before I did my higher degree.

    My son aged 21 started full time work for the first time this year. He gets paid 12% less than I do, has a company phone and access to a company car when needed. I am in a middle management position at my school and have been teaching for 25 years.


  36. moo, perhaps you need to change careers. Either that or do a sloppy job and not worry too much about it (and hence reduce your workload), since it’s easy to justify given the appaling conditions that are not your fault. If either of those don’t appeal to you, then you are obviously getting some sort of altruistic reward for being a teacher.


  37. Thanks conrad but I’m quite happy in my job. I actually like my job and like all jobs it has its downside. The only things that really bothers me are the matriculation exams we have to teach to and the reluctance of some of my colleagues to change their teaching methods. Sure a bit of extra money would be nice but I have most of the things I want or need.

    BUT what really makes me cranky are the assumptions made by some contributors to this blog. Remember that there are good and not so good people in every profession and trade.

    What most teachers would like is a little more respect.

    And to Andrew Norton and work load: it has increased massively in my time in the profession and the bulk of it has to do with “paperwork”, little of which is of benefit to teaching and learning IMO.

    I mentioned the intensity of the work in an earlier post. I’ve also worked out of the teaching profession for a year and what I did like about that was being able to do one thing at a time. In teaching you multi-task from the moment you get to school.


  38. moo,

    this is one of the problems with teaching. There are too many people that are not willing to change jobs (even to other schools), so people complain about it, but stay anyway. This means schools know they can keep staff even if with bad conditions (and hence it reduces wages). Its the same as universities — lots of people complain about bad conditions, but not enough people are actually willing to move (even though many are able to — although due to the small number of jobs in universities, the moves are often more life changing, i.e., interstate or OS). If these place knew they had to try to keep good-enough staff, like almost all other profesional workplaces, everyone’s conditions would be far better.


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