Speculations on Pay Inequity


Last time (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/elementary-pay-inequity/), we went over the difference in salaries here in the Chicago suburbs between teachers who work in high school districts (grades 9-12) and those who teach in elementary districts (K-8).  After illustrating the gap averaged from 15-25% in a variety of DuPage County school districts, I suggested that this was not right if you went by the difficulty of teaching, regardless of the grade level.  My high school friends (if they still are) might not agree, but having worked in both an elementary district (eight years) and high school district (twenty-five years—hey, I told you: the pay’s better), I do not believe this difference is merited.  I laid out some of the ways to compare the two jobs, but couldn’t come up with any compelling facts to prove the uneven pay was justified.

And that leads to this analysis on why elementary and high school districts have evolved in ways that lead to secondary teachers being paid so much more.  Before we start, a couple of qualifications and warnings:  I don’t know for sure why there is such a wide gap as there isn’t much out there on this issue.  Obviously, high school districts have more money to spend on salaries, but how did that evolve?  Is this true in other parts of the country, say, the suburbs of other major cities?  Are all states as dependent on property taxes to fund public schools as Illinois?  Why is it that high school districts collect more funds for paying teachers than elementary districts?  There are several underlying issues that must contribute to this gap besides the speculations below, so take the following as simply the observations of someone who taught in both an elementary and a high school district in the Chicago suburbs.

Size would seem to account for at least some of the difference.  High school districts generally have multiple elementary school districts which feed into them, and thus are larger.  Clearly there is some economy of scale going on here—fewer school boards, larger supply orders (prices go down if you purchase huge quantities), fewer (albeit, much larger) buildings, and even cheaper administrators.  (It would be too good to be true that large high school districts would have fewer total administrators; but since they can only have one superintendent and a couple of principals, one would assume that the layers of lesser administrators [assistants, directors, and the like] would at least have lower salaries than all the superintendents and principals in the more numerous elementary districts and schools.)  Size also helps in negotiating lower rates from insurance and bus companies.  I wouldn’t go overboard in attributing millions of dollars being freed up for teacher salaries due to high school districts being larger, but every little bit helps. (This is also contradicted by the fact that the biggest districts of all, unit districts, also have lower teacher salaries than high school districts.  More on unit districts next time.)

The size of the teachers’ unions is probably a more significant factor.  Again, high schools typically have hundreds of teachers in their unions, while elementary districts often have less than a hundred.  In theory, this should make it easier for elementary districts to have bigger salaries since funding for 55 teachers is more easily obtained than the cash to pay 550, but that’s clearly not how it works around here.  The key to size in this instance is that it allows the unions to be more organized and to exert more force.  From campaigning in school board elections to planning job actions to finding tough negotiators to filing grievances, high school unions have many more individuals upon whom to call.  A single individual devoted to union activities can accomplish a great deal (I was one of those people and have some experience with this), so you only need anywhere from ten-to-twenty committed individuals and you can get a lot done.  Do the math and you can see it will be easier to recruit the necessary core group from a pool of hundreds of members contrasted with a membership of fifty.  Union activists tend to burn out just like any other part-time worker who isn’t getting paid (or receiving a token stipend at best), so unions need a constant influx of new blood.  Many elementary districts have neither the numbers on staff nor a ready supply of new, young members to take over.  Instead, the tendency is to rely on a couple of old standbys who, despite heroic efforts, gradually lose steam over the years, not to mention becoming frustrated with lack of support from their colleagues.

Here’s where I will probably offend some of my elementary teacher friends, since I believe they have to accept some responsibility for their lower pay.  Yeah, my experience was that elementary teachers were more passive when it came to interactions with their bosses.  I participated in my unions’ contract negotiations three times in my elementary district and six with my high school, and teachers were much more militant at the high school.  I also went to some state and national union conventions, and again, the high school teachers tended to be more willing to challenge their bosses and to push harder to increase benefits and pay than the elementary teachers were.  My buddy Frank, who was my mentor when I worked in an elementary district, Itasca #10, was fond of saying that as union leaders of elementary teachers, we were “out on a limb while the rest of our colleagues are sawing it off behind us.”

That might be a bit melodramatic—Frank has a poetic soul, especially for a math teacher—but it did seem that when we needed support with a contentious union issue, few of the other teachers could provide much.  We often ran into the “It wouldn’t be professional,” excuse when we challenged them to stand up for their rights more forcefully.  Many more elementary teachers compared to high school teachers disliked referring to our labor organization as a “union,” and insisted that it was be called an “association.”  (Although the most insistent on this distinction is one of my old Hinsdale South colleagues who still contends that it is incorrect to call the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association a “union.”  She has even spoken at board meetings and written letters protesting the “union” label.  Generally, most define associations as organizations which promote professions, while unions negotiate contracts and file grievances for employees, which was what I did.  But, I never cared what anyone called it as long as I got to have a say in my working conditions.)

In short, I found elementary teachers much more willing to accept the status quo and less disposed to disagreeing with their bosses.  No, that is not an absolute, and if there is one constant among union activists whom I have known, it is their exasperation with their colleagues’ failure to participate in union actions, regardless of whether they worked in elementary or high school districts.  But, maybe it’s because most high schools are so much bigger than elementary schools that enough hardcore union folks tend to show up to organize and advocate in the high schools.  Regardless of the reasons, my experience was that elementary teachers have less taste for the more confrontational actions often necessary to improve working conditions.

We started this series of articles with the assertion that gender doesn’t play a factor in teacher salaries, but there is a distinct difference in what level men and women teach.  According to a study put out by the U.S. Department of Education (see http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013314.pdf), for the 2011-12 school year, 76% of all teachers were females and 24% were male.  But that spread is much greater when you look at the elementary schools—89% female and 11% male—compared to high schools where the gap falls to 58% female and 42% male.  So is that a contributing factor in lower elementary salaries?

Again, I’m managing to offend everyone with this series, but I believe gender bias does play a role in the discrepancy between elementary and high school salaries.  First, we mentioned last time that the one area where the “good old boys” network still has a foothold in education is at the administrative level.  Males still tend to dominate, especially at the superintendent level. (According to one study I found, only 24% of superintendents out of 2,000 surveyed nationwide were female; see http://www.districtadministration.com/article/new-study-explores-changing-face-superintendent for more on this.)  And since superintendents typically participate in the negotiations process, not to mention outside lawyers who also tend to be predominantly male, it is possible that some gender issues exist in the hardball world of negotiating contracts.

This is especially likely when negotiations take the “positional” approach, where the sides just trade proposals and rhetoric until a mutually unsatisfactory agreement is reached.  Neither side is happy at the end of this, but the process is definitely a more “macho” test of wills rather than a mutually beneficial compromise.  Males might not be thrilled with the settlement, but they will take some solace in how much they stood up to the “man” and that they managed to get the superintendent pissed off a few times.  If it sounds like I’m talking from personal experience here, er…um…well, ya know how it is, right?

Women leaders tend to value relationships and reaching consensus more than men, so it would make sense that they wouldn’t fare as well in the “Who’s going to back down first?” world of positional bargaining.  My guess is that overall, the interest-based model for negotiating—each side trying to understand the other’s point of view and nobody proposing anything for which there isn’t strong factual support—would be more suited to a female socialization.  And having negotiated both ways, interest-based is definitely the better way to go.

However, most districts still use the positional format.  Since elementary districts have many more women and thus a greater percentage of female negotiators, it would follow that the elementary districts might not be as successful with a positional approach.  This is definitely pure conjecture on my part, so take it for what it’s worth.

Head of household versus secondary income earner is probably a much greater contributor to maintaining the salary imbalance.  Back in the day, a single income was generally enough to support one’s family.  However, as times and economies changed, more and more households required two earners to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.  This trend of both a wife and a husband’s working coincided with the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, leading more women to want to be in the work force, regardless of economic need.  One of the two earners, though, would typically supply significantly more cash to the home than the other.  This primary income provider is usually NOT a teacher, and many teachers’ salaries do not provide the bulk of their families’ cash.  This makes any increases teachers receive much less important than the raises the chief bread winner earns.  Couple that with the automatic increases the salary schedules in most teacher contracts have, and fighting for a percentage or two more becomes a very low priority for any teacher who provides the secondary income for his/her family.

Now, this really is not based on gender, but as we saw earlier, the majority of teachers are female.  Females are also much more likely to cycle in and out of the work force based on family responsibilities which are still assumed more often by women.  Many teachers’ families learn to cope with the teachers’ lower salaries as well as sometimes not having it at all for anywhere from six weeks to a year-and-a-half during maternity leaves.  With a predominance of women in the elementary schools, therefore, the salary schedule in these districts will be less significant than leave policies, sick days, and a district’s being understanding about child-rearing issues.

Many more high school teachers are able to support their families solely on the income their teaching provides.  So it is hardly surprising that more men are in the high schools since we’re only at the beginning of the revolution where women and men are perceived as completely equal in the workplace, and it is not yet as common for females to be a family’s chief income provider as it is for males.  There are still millions who firmly believe that it is the man’s job to be the provider/hunter, while it is the woman’s role to be the nest builder/nurturer. (Yes, these people are unenlightened.)  And teaching has traditionally been a low-income job.  It is only within the last thirty years or so that many states have enacted collective-bargaining laws (1983 in Illinois), which enabled the more aggressive teacher unions to improve their members’ salaries.  As you recall, we’ve already gone over that the high school districts have typically been much more assertive in demanding salary increases.

Keep in mind that most of this analysis is experiential, anecdotal, and opinion; so I’m not claiming any of these “reasons” definitively caused the salary gap between high school and elementary teachers in the Chicago suburbs.  Probably, all have contributed a certain percentage.  But there’s no question that the gap exists, so we’ve now come to the final phase of this analysis—what should/can be done about secondary/elementary teacher pay differences.  Next time, we’ll tackle that.

For more on school funding and teacher salary schedules, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Pay Inequity: What to Do? |

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