When Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) stuck his foot in his mouth yesterday by saying problems in schools started with women leaving the home, my mind went to the same place Matt Yglesias’ did: There’s one way in which this is sort of true.
In 1964, over half of working women with college degrees were teachers, in part because many other professional fields were effectively closed to women. As women’s career opportunities expanded, America’s smartest women became less likely to decide that teaching was their best career choice — and as a result, teacher aptitude has declined.
That’s the thesis of a 2003 paper by economics Professors Sean Corcoran, William Evans and Robert Schwab. They find a dramatic decline from 1957 to 1992 in the likelihood that women who graduate near the top of their high school classes become teachers, and they attribute this to the opening of the broader labour market to women.
But another paper from Professors Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh disputes this finding. They note two big labour market changes since the 1960s: women gained a lot more job opportunities, and states started allowing teachers to unionize. And they find that unionization, not gender equality, was the big force driving top talent out of teaching.
Unionization has two big effects on teacher pay. It drives wages up overall by about 8 per cent, but it also leads to a phenomenon known as “wage compression”: it reduces the gap in pay between the highest- and lowest-aptitude teachers. The biggest gains from unionization go to the lowest-aptitude teachers, while the highest-aptitude ones lose out.
Hoxby and Leigh use the average SAT score at a teacher’s undergraduate college as a proxy for aptitude. In the 1960s, there was a big gap in pay between teachers who went to highly selective schools and those who didn’t. But by 2000, “most states had earnings ratios near one for all aptitude groups” — that is, teachers get paid about the same regardless of where they went to college.
Hoxby and Leigh call this the “push” effect that moves high-aptitude people out of teaching, while the “pull” of a more equal labour market that drew top women into other fields. And by looking at the different years in which states began allowing unionization, they find that the “push” is the dominant effect, responsible for three quarters of the decline in teacher aptitude.
It’s not a surprising finding: If you don’t pay top candidates extra, you’ll have difficulty drawing them to work for you.
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