I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More "Teachers Get Summers Off" Nonsense

It's one of my favorite reformy memes: "Teachers get summers off!" Today's version comes to us via Matt Yglesias:
There are few more cherished nostrums in American life than the importance of equal opportunities. Unfortunately, one of them is the importance of summer vacation. It's a cheap way of doing something nice for teachers, but summer vacation is a disaster for poor children and their parents, creating massive avoidable inequities in life outcomes and seriously undereducating the population. [emphasis mine]
The frustrating thing here is that a lot of Yglesias's column makes sense. There is no doubt that poor children suffer in comparison to wealthier children in their learning outcomes due to variations in their summer experiences (a great argument, by the way, for not using test-based teacher evaluations, since we have no clue how students with varying summer activities are distributed across teachers). I think we need to be careful about how we develop summer programs, and we're going to have a hard time addressing whether such programs should be mandatory, especially for more affluent families and communities that already have what they feel are appropriate levels of summer activities.

(Also, as the father of two teenagers: I'm not sure I want them in school during the summer rather than having work experiences. But that's a big subject for another time...)

All this said, I think Yglesias is right to broach the subject as a matter of inequity. And I'll give him credit for this:
The contrast between America's rhetorical obsession with the bad educational outcomes of poor children and its blasé attitude toward summer vacation is striking. Conservatives have spent years pounding the point that a lack of money is not the problem in American public education. While it's true that there's much more to quality schools than money, the existence of summer vacation is a huge barrier to equal opportunity, and the barrier to year-round schooling is clearly financial. You'd need to install air conditioners, and you'd have to pay utility bills. You'd need to pay teachers and school staff more. But the gains would be obvious.
OK, good: unlike Chris Christie, Yglesias is willing to admit that teachers don't get paid during the summer. But if that's true, how is imposing a two-month, unpaid furlough every year "doing something nice for teachers"?

Yglesias and Christie both imply that teachers relish making a plan to get through two unpaid months every year; that somehow this is a perk of the job. My personal experience is quite the opposite: the days between June 30 and September 15 - the last and first paychecks of the school year - are hardly a gift. Most teachers I know do one of two things: work at a part-time or seasonal job (which usually pays even less than teaching), or provide care full-time to their own children, who are also off during the summer. And that doesn't include the work all teachers do between June and September to get ready for their next year at school, engage in professional development, or pursue advanced degrees.

The research about teachers and non-school jobs is spotty at best. According to NCES, in 2008 about 17% of teachers worked outside of school during the summer; another 21% worked in their schools, but we don't know what the overlap between the two figures is (and we don't have a good estimate of how much teacher income in the summer is "off the books"). We also don't know how many teachers were taking care of their own children, which I would certainly argue is full-time work. In addition, these figures come from before the recession; more recent reporting puts the second job rate for teachers at one-in-five, although informal reporting goes as high as one-in-three or even one-in-two.

But none of this really addresses the implication both Yglesias and Christie make: that teachers view having their summers off in exchange for not being paid as a perk. I searched around a bit on the usual academic databases trying to find some research about teacher attitudes toward summer break; at first glance, I couldn't find anything. The famous MetLife surveys don't broach the subject. So how can anyone say that unpaid summer furloughs are a perk when we haven't even asked teachers whether they see it that way?

Given how many teachers work in summer programs at their own schools, it's not too much of a stretch to think that, at a minimum, a healthy portion of the teaching corps would be glad to have a longer school year - provided they were paid for it, and that they would be guaranteed decent working conditions, including air-conditioned rooms. And I strongly suspect, given the large number of women in the profession, that even more teachers would agree to working a longer year if they knew their own kids were going to be in school as well.

So let's stop implying that teacher attitudes are the primary impediment that keeps us from extending the school year. And let's stop saying that an unpaid summer break is a perk; it's reasonable to assume that, for at least a good fraction of the teaching corps, summers off is more trouble than it's worth.


giuseppe said...

Yglesias and many others seem to think that the teachers are in charge of the school system of running or managing the schools. The length of the school year is not up to the teachers, it's up to the school board, the superintendent and the community. Most private and parochial schools follow the same pattern as the public schools, they also have the summers off. If people want to extend the school year and have classes during the summer, they should go to the school board meetings and throw this idea at the people who are really in charge of the school system and the length of the school year. The teachers are employees who follow orders, they don't get to decide if the year will be extended into the summer. The problem is that the teacher haters and the union haters want teachers to work for free during the summer, increase the workload but not the pay and forget about air conditioning.

czarejs said...

Just yesterday I told this old timer that I'm not on vacation but on unpaid leave. You should have seen the look on his face to that.

Matthew Maas said...

Another thing that struck me about Yglesias' piece was the assumption that every area of the country is exactly the same in terms of the summer. Living in a shore town in Cape May County has made me realize just how dependent our economy is on a tourist season.

Duke said...

That is a great point, MM!