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.

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2 thoughts on “Summer Vacation and Teachers

  1. Great post. You highlight a very complicated dilemma here. We need to pay teachers more to increase prestige and draw talent to the profession. We also need to do something to address how long the summer break is and how it contributes to the achievement gap. As much as it would pain me (because I love the teacher break – see my latest entry), I think that we should spread out our breaks so as to not lose so much instructional time.

  2. Pingback: 2011 in Review | stone soup

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