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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The State of New Jersey's Teachers, Part 1: Teachers, Aging, & Pensions

I've been blogging for a long time, and teaching for even longer than that. One thing I've picked up from doing both is that people learning differently. Some students like learning in groups with their peers; some like one-on-one time with their teachers; some like working things out for themselves.

In the same way, when I write about education policy, I've noted that some folks like to read a long, academic policy brief, some like a short burst of tweets, and some -- believe it or not -- like to read to read the informal prose of a blog.

So, in the same way I provide multiple ways to learn for my students, I'm going to start blogging and tweeting more about my research work. Which means, this week, we're going to talk about New Jersey teachers.

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I have a new report out today published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective: New Jersey's Teacher Workforce, 2019. This is actually the second in a series of pieces on Jersey education policy, the first being Bruce Baker's report on school funding from earlier this year (which I synopsized for NJPP).

One of the reasons I wanted to do this report is that so much focus has been on the plight of teachers over the last year, especially in states like West Virginia or Oklahoma or Arizona, where school funding is wholly inadequate. But there's been less focus on teachers in states like New Jersey, which has been a leader both in school funding equity and in student achievement.

When I started this, I was actually surprised about how little we really know about the Garden State's teachers. Who are they? What is their educational and racial/ethnic background? How have the demographics of the teacher corps changed?

So the report starts there -- but I also wanted to take a good hard look at how teachers are paid. For years, when Chris Christie was governor, we heard over and over again that teachers had a sweet deal: hefty raises for a job where the hours and days at work are less than other workers. But is that really true? What does the evidence show? Are New Jersey's teachers making big bucks compared to similar workers?

Further: how do salaries vary across the state? Do less advantaged districts have the ability to recruit and retain good teachers by offering competitive salaries? And what about the vaunted teacher retirement and health care benefits we're always hearing about? Are they really that lucrative?

Reasonable people can differ about how to approach the data to shed some light on these questions -- but I think I've come up with some defensible answers. Let's start by looking first at the age of the folks who sit behind the big desk...

Like all the graphs I'm going to show, this comes directly from the report, although formatting may be a little different. This shows the mean (aka average) age of teachers in NJ. It's a small but fairly steady decline. Why?

This might be my favorite graph in the whole report... but it does take a bit of explaining. What I did here was take all the teachers in 1997, and put them into "bins," based on their age. The bins are 5 years "wide": all the teachers in 1997 who were between age 20 and 24 go in one bin, then all the teachers who are age 25 to 29 in the next, and so on.

I did that for 1997 because that was the earliest year for which I had good data. Then I did it for five years later, in 2002. And again in 2007, and so on, all the way to 2017. What you get at the end is a graph that shows how the distribution of teachers by age has changed over the last two decades.

Here's the takeaway: Two decades ago there were a lot of teacher in their 50's who have since retired. We now have many teachers who won't retire for another couple of decades, at least. Which means that we don't have as many teachers entering the pension system as we will 20 years from now...

Which means that now is the time to strengthen our pension system, before the next wave of teacher retirees arrives.

We'll talk more about pension and their importance as this series continues. For now, let's see how teachers' ages vary across different types of NJ schools:

Again, some explanation is in order. New Jersey's schools districts are classified into different "District Factor Groups" (DFGs). DFG-A and DFG-B are the most disadvantaged communities: high levels of poverty, low property values, etc. Some of these districts were party to the Abbott lawsuits, which led to additional funding for them. But some were not; they haven't always had the same access to resources as the Abbotts.

DFG-CD/DE/FG districts are less disadvantaged; for lack of a better term, let's call them "working class" communities. The most affluent districts are DFG-GH/I/J. Then there are the charters schools, which, in NJ, are de facto autonomous school districts, accountable only to the state. "Special Services" districts serve children with profound special education needs. Finally, Vo-Tech districts, which generally fall along county lines, provide vocational and technical training for high school students.

The most obvious thing to notice in this graph is how young the charter school teachers are compared to all the other publicly funded schools. As I've noted many times, this creates a serious problem: charter schools may well be "free riding" on the other schools' wages. Charters can offer lower wages because they know their teachers won't stay long, bolting to better-paying districts as soon as they can.

But the charters can only get away with this because their young teachers know that, if they can stick it out a few years, better paying jobs in district schools will be available. The more I study this, the more indisputable the evidence becomes.

But the other thing here that stands out is how much older the vo-tech teachers are than everyone else. I really don't know why that may be... but considering how much emphasis state legislators have been putting on vo-tech lately, we probably should take a closer look at this. Because...

The vo-tech teachers are older, but they're less a little less experienced, on average. That suggests to me these schools are may be drawing from a pool of folks who worked into private sector for a while, then entered teaching. What does it take to recruit these people into vo-tech schools? We'll see in a bit.

But the big story is still the charters: the teachers there have far less experience than all the other schools. Again: do we have a free riding problem?

Let's talk about race, gender, and New Jersey's teachers next...

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