Misplaced Values

November 12, 2006

Posted in Personal.

Paul Graham recently posted an essay about the gap between wealthy and poor. It had me thinking about the values we hold in society.

“When we say that one kind of work is overpaid and another underpaid, what are we really saying? In a free market, prices are determined by what buyers want. People like baseball more than poetry, so baseball players make more than poets. To say that a certain kind of work is underpaid is thus identical with saying that people want the wrong things.”

He goes on to say admit that people want the wrong things but that such a conclusion doesn’t imply that it’s unjust:

“Well, of course people want the wrong things. It seems odd to be surprised by that. And it seems even odder to say that it’s unjust that certain kinds of work are underpaid. 7 Then you’re saying that it’s unjust that people want the wrong things. It’s lamentable that people prefer reality TV and corndogs to Shakespeare and steamed vegetables, but unjust?”

Generally speaking, I agree with him. But people wanting the wrong things can have disastrous effects not just on the undervalued but those who rely on such undervalued groups. My first thought in reading Paul’s essay? Teachers are an exception.

Teachers are a group traditionally considered underpaid and overworked. The average starting teacher’s salary is about 30% under the average liberal arts college graduate’s starting salary. It’s no wonder that schools have a hard time attracting qualified, talented teachers. Schools aren’t willing (or capable) of paying teachers enough to compete with higher-paying careers like, say, managing a video rental store.

My wife pointed out a fascinating quote from the textbook in the Adolescent Development class she’s teaching:

“Studies have shown that the quality of an adolescent’s home environment—as measured simply in terms of the presence of such items as a television set, dictionary, encyclopedia, newspaper, vacuum cleaner, and other indicators of family income—is more strongly correlated with youngsters’ level of academic achievement than is the quality of the physical facility of the school they attend, the background and training of their teachers, or the level of teachers’ salaries paid by the school district (Armor, 1972).”

Well, then. Are teachers undervalued? I still say yes. Teachers and schools are the vehicle through which education happens and is measured. While families provide the fuel for this process, teachers are expected to use this fuel to facilitate the education. However, we do not give them the tools to succeed. When they do succeed, it is in spite of their resources.

We’ve misplaced our values in a way that’s harmful to all of us. So while the market rewards SUV manufacturers, reality television producers, and sports teams, we ask our educational system to spin gold from straw. This is an exception to Paul’s claims. We demand output without the proper input. And that’s unjust.

Additional Sources

Armor, D. (1972). School and family effects on black and white achievement: A reexamination of the USOE data. In F. Mosteller and D. Moynihan (Eds.), On equality of educational opportunity. New York: Random House.


  1. -oAk- — November 13, 2006

    I read the first couple of paragraphs of this thinking “what about teachers?” so I’m pleased to see that you carried it in that direction.

    There’s very little left to say about america’s social divisions when you consider that you can make 6 figures right out of school defending industrial polluters and cigarette manufacturers from being held liable for things but you have to eat ramen noodles and live with four roommates to make ends meet as a starting teacher. Finding a legitmate, market based means of paying teachers what they are worth to us as a society would be the single best way to seed the next generation of leaders and innovators and entreprenuers to make all of our lives better.

    How cool would this country be if a job teaching math to 5th graders came with the kind of salary that would encourage the best and brightest of our college graduates?

    Social workers are underpaid too, by the way. As are camp directors.

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