Summer Vacation and Teachers

Somewhat predictably, a few posts about American schools’ summer vacation have been popping up on the blogosphere. Slate republished an article explaining the origins of the three-month break, and Matt Yglesias linked back to an old post discussing how the summer vacation period contributes to the achievement gap.

While both posts (and the studies they link to) focus on the effect summer vacation has on learning, one issue that I think has been overlooked is the effect such reforms would have on teachers. A recent editorial in the New York Times detailed how teachers in the United States are drastically underpaid:

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. […]

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

Of course, this isn’t the story you’ve been getting if you’re following politics in Wisconsin (and elsewhere), where teacher unions are being blamed for fiscal excess and have become common targets for attack by politicians. But even if you blame teacher unions for problems in America’s schools, it doesn’t mean teachers are properly paid: bargaining with cash-strapped state and local governments, public employee unions typically cause fiscal problems by conspiring with those governments to defer fiscal obligations (such as through deferred-payment pension plans) or guarantee non-monetary benefits (such as teacher tenure and other measures to improve job security). Thus, despite collective bargaining power, teachers remain underpaid–and our unwillingness to pay them more contributes to the problems of public sector collective bargaining.

This leads back to summer vacation: right now, the three-month vacation for teachers (though it’s hardly a vacation for most teachers, who continue to work in some capacity) is one non-monetary benefit that teachers get in exchange for their subpar pay compared to other professionals. I find it plausible that abolishing summer vacation may, by making school a year-round endeavor, increase the status of teaching and thus lead to higher pay.

On the other hand, looking at teacher unions’ bargaining positions (read: the way teachers seem to be targeted first for cuts), it seems equally likely that if summer vacation is eliminated, teachers’ salaries will not improve. What’s more, many teachers joined the profession under the assumption that they would have summer vacations off, potentially making the loss of that vacation worth more to them than some paltry increase in salary that may accompany it. This is especially true for potential parents, who may be attracted to teaching over other professions with a worse work-life balance.

Given that teachers are already underpaid and overworked, I lean toward not scrapping summer vacation. That being said, I see arguments for both sides. It’s very possible that the benefits to children from learning year-round could outweigh any potential drawbacks to teachers. I just tend to be sympathetic to the view that “reforms” which make it less attractive to be a teacher have negative consequences for children as well. To improve learning, you need to improve teaching.

“Rigging” Elections

Hendrik Hertzberg had an interesting blog post today about faux-objectivity in political journalism. In particular, he quotes Jonathan Chait discussing an article in Politico about changes in election laws:

The story duly produces vast swaths of evidence of Republican legislators attempting to change electoral rules in ways that would benefit the GOP in 2012—restricting early voting, shortening poll hours, clamping down on students voting at their campus, and so on. For the sake of balance, the story must also cite Democratic attempts to rig the 2012 playing field. The sum total of the evidence of rigging on the Democratic side is the ongoing attempt to bypass the electoral college through the National Popular Vote initiative, which hopes to enlist 270 electoral votes worth of states to pledge to appoint their electors to support the winner of the popular vote in presidential elections.

Hertzberg goes on to note how the National Popular Vote proposal (a pet cause for him) is far from illegal “vote rigging” but is actually a non-partisan proposal that has good democratic credentials: what could be more democratic than electing the presidential candidate who has more votes?

I don’t have much to add, except to say that in fact, the Politico article above helps to demonstrate one of the biggest reasons why the National Popular Vote proposal is such a good idea: it’s the Electoral College, with its creation of winner-take-all “battleground” states, that makes the election law of those states such a contested issue. As Hertzberg notes, sixty-thousand votes in Ohio in 2004 could have elected John Kerry despite George Bush garnering three-million more votes.

If the President were elected according to who had the most votes throughout the country, there’d be far less of an incentive for moneyed interests to focus on stopping college students in Ohio from voting or denying the franchise to felons in Florida. As the Politico article demonstrates, it may be the only way: the Fourth Estate seems uninterested in calling Republican vote-rigging what it is–they seem far more interested in drawing false equivalences.

Federal Funding Received by State per Dollar Sent.


During the presidential debate for Bartlett’s reelection in The West Wing, the Democratic president turns to the Republican nominee and says:

“There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida

didn’t fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year – from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry. 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?”

Like Governor Ritchie and the Republicans in the West Wing, real-life Republicans and Tea Partyers abhor big government. But as President Bartlett pointed out, we do not operate as a collection of states, and the federal government gives considerable aid to the various states to supplement state funding. This is inevitably a redistribution from wealthier states to poorer states–from Wall St. and Silicon Valley to Main St. and Tin Pan Alley. But the latter is not so grateful for the assistance of the former, and even as they accept federal dollars, Republicans vilify the source of their extra income.

Above we see two maps of the United States. The one on the bottom is a familiar Electoral Map from Bush v. Kerry, 2004. On the top is a map I created (alas, I could not find a snazzier map-making program) using data from the Tax Foundation. It shows Federal Dollars Received by State Per Dollar Sent to Washington. Notice anything? To a large extent, the red states correlate from map to map. That is, Republican states in favor of smaller government were actually the biggest beneficiaries of big government. For every dollar Mississippi sent to the federal government, it received $2.02; for every dollar New Jersey sent to the federal government, it saw only $0.61. Yet Mississippi voters don’t berate their Senators and Representatives for being so effective at bringing home the bacon. In Mississippi, the 2007 budget was composed of $8.4 billion from state-source funds, and $5.9 billion from federal funds. Over 40% of Mississippi’s state budget that year came from the federal government, and of that over half came from out-of-state taxpayers, including liberal elites in places like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. Can we have it back please? (funnily enough, Gov. Ritchie’s Florida just about breaks even at $0.97 received per dollar sent. The other odd blue state, Texas, is also close at $0.94.)

The other irony is that, living in D.C., I see license plates every day that complain “Taxation Without Representation”, and lawn signs campaigning for DC Voting Rights. Yet although New Mexico and Mississippi have the highest returns of any states, the District of Columbia blows them out of the water. For every dollar D.C. sent to the Treasury, the federal government paid $5.55 back. For that kind of money, I’d happily trade the services of my representative, Scott Garrett from the NJ-5th.

Full rankings of federal funding below the fold:

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Recipe: 10-Minute Mussels

Like a lot of humble working-class fare in recent years, moules frites has been elevated to bistros and fancy dining rooms. At NYC’s Flex Mussels, 17 different versions of the classic Belgian dish anchor the menu, for $18 (classic) to $21 (“Maine”: w/ lobster, smoked bacon, corn, white chowder, parsley). I much prefer to make mussels at home because I don’t feel like choosing between paying $20 for mussels (seriously, they’re only $3.99/lb. at Whole Foods), or getting food poisoning at a less reputable establishment. Fortunately, they’re incredibly easy to make. Here’s a simple recipe that takes less than 10 minutes from beginning to end, and tastes great!


1 lb. Mussels (per person)

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 Andouille or Chorizo sausage, sliced

1/2 bunch Parsley, chopped roughly

2 tbsp. Butter

1 cup White Wine or Dry Vermouth



1) Clean your mussels by scrubbing them under cold water, and pulling off the “beards”. There are only two things to know about eating mussels safely: (a) Don’t buy/use any raw mussels that are already opened. Ask the fish monger to sort them out if you’re buying by the pound. (b) Don’t eat any cooked mussels that haven’t opened. Do not force them open.
2) Heat a pot with a lid, preferably a clear lid. Add butter to hot pot. Add sausage, and cook through. The sausage is obviously optional, though I think it enriches the broth and gives it a bit of a smokey flavor. You can leave it out, but in that case I might add a diced shallot. Add garlic, brown.
3) Add cleaned mussels. Quickly sprinkle some salt (not too much, the mussels are naturally salty from the sea), and pepper. Add chopped parsley and splash over white wine. Cover quickly with lid.
4) While holding down the lid, vigorously shake the pot back and forth to turn over the mussels. Once the mussels open from the steaming, they are cooked–this took 90 seconds for 1 lb; I can’t imagine it taking more than 3-4 min. even for larger portions. Some recipes say 8-10 minutes… but that will completely overcook them. Live dangerously, I say.
5) Portion mussels into bowls, remember to throw out unopened mussels. Pour over broth, and mop it up with warm, crusty bread!