What price passion?

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece from local-boy-makes-better Thomas Friedman, in which he called for an end to the federal income tax for teachers.


One of the smartest stimulus moves we could make would be to eliminate federal income taxes on all public schoolteachers so more talented people would choose these careers. I’d also double the salaries of all highly qualified math and science teachers, staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from any U.S. university in math or science — instead of subsidizing their educations and then sending them home — and offer full scholarships to needy students who want to go to a public university or community college for the next four years.

Philip Greenspun, the former MIT computer guy and educatior, takes Friedman to task today.


Were we to implement the tax break immediately, 100% of the benefits would flow to existing teachers because no new ones will be hired until September. Friedman implies that these existing teachers are untalented because they are paid so little (topping out at just over $100,000 per year after 22 years, or age 44 for the typical person who starts after college) I don’t think he believes that the untalented will do a better job without the distraction of paying federal income tax, so perhaps he is holding out hope for five years from now. In September 2009, a truly talented young person, hearing about this tax break, will decide to go to a teacher’s college to pursue a Bachelor’s in Education. In September 2013 that person will have graduated and be ready to work. Assuming an average career length of 30 years, by 2014 fully 3 percent of our schoolteachers will be the talented ones attracted by the tax break and taxpayers will only be wasting 97 percent of their money by paying the untalented legacy schoolteachers extra.

Neither mentioned a dilemma that I didn’t think about either, until I was out at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington a few weeks ago. Gary Gillin, the Dean of Communication & Enrollment and Amber Luinenburg, the campus marketer, were giving me a tour of the campus, which featured some well-equipped labs for plant research. We also discussed the the nursing program.

In both cases, I remarked about the demand for both in today’s economy; biofuels and nursing are growth areas.

“You have to have the passion for whatever career you’re going to go into,” both stressed to me. It was a light-bulb moment then, as it was when I read Friedman’s column.

The dilemma? How do you attract people to an industry as important as teaching without making it about the money? And what is the point at which the passion for what you do becomes secondary to the monetary benefit you derive from doing it? Is it possible to provide a financial incentive without ending up with people who are only doing something for the money?

Somewhat related: Be sure to read Elizabeth Baier’s excellent story today on highly-educated immigrants who came to the United States, only to start from scratch. On the one hand, we want talented people to go into particular careers. On the other, we present significant obstacles to the ones who want to.

  • Joshua

    Elizabeth Baier’s story, which I heard on the air this morning (seems like i’ve heard it twice today) makes the assumption that college and graduate degrees from other countries should be weighted equally with those same degrees in the US. There are many reasons why the people in her story are not able to transfer directly into the “same” position they held in there home countries, but the quality of their educations systems is at the top of that list. Don’t sell the US education system short. We spend a significant amount of money educating the people of this country and it is the best in the world.

  • http://www.trailblz.com Brian Hanf

    No one wants to be poor. So to ignite a spark where passion might grow this is a wonderful idea. The ‘kids’ who might look at it because of the tax break will increase the numbers that get the passion.

    Those who would scoff at it for tax policy, think of the food and clothing exemptions for sales tax. You can exempt things (like teachers or food) and still tax things (like principals and video games) without too may issues.

  • Ryan

    I am an education major in college right now. If someone wants to be a teacher for the money, then they are not in the right field. Being a low paying field, few people are in it for the money, they are in it for their passion of teaching and changing the world. People are business majors because they want to make money, not education.

  • Al

    I made the switch from a career as a high school science teacher to a scientist. It was no extra training. I work 2/3 of the hours that I used (even accounting for summer break) and make twice as much as I would have if I had stayed. I worked at a private school that prided itself on paying about 10% below the public schools in the area, but even given that 10% I am still ahead.

    Money wasn’t the only factor in the change, but it was a primary one. We wanted to move our family out of the hood where we were living next to drug dealers with more dealers out the back door. We were awaken twice in the middle of the night to see six or more squad cars in front of our house with officers with guns drawn on suspects. We figured 2 college educated professionals should be able to afford to get the kids out of that situation. However, with both of us as private school teachers, we just couldn’t make it work. My summer (supposed to be time off for R&R and professional development) spent working 12 hour days as a courier to make ends meet was enough to convice me to leave teaching. No offense to couriers, but I didn’t get degrees in science and math to do that the rest of my life.

    Can you make extra money teaching? Sure. Coach a popular sport. Devote the time you should spend being an effective teacher to coaching, which is a second and very time consuming job. Get a higher degree. When I checked in my last year it would have taken 7 years of my increased masters level pay to pay off the cheapest MA program I could find, and that was a pretty pathetic program.

    Do you need passion to be a good teacher? Absolutely. But if you are passionate about your job, let me ask you this, would you do it the rest of your life if I cut your pay in half? Think carefully about how that would affect your standard of living before you answer.

  • Alison

    Lest someone get the wrong idea from Philip Greenspun’s quote, that $100,000/year after 22 years is not the reality of wages around here. Half that maybe.

  • Alison

    It is also worth noting 2 other points.

    1. Society pays people with different subject area degrees differently. This is not the case in education. Therefore, the pay difference for mathmeticians and scientists is greater than for historians.

    2. Much of the pay difference is the result of historical gender pay disparities. Teaching has historically been ‘women’s work’. Undoing generations of gender pay inequality is not easy.

  • Elizabeth T

    There is no reason to take pride in making less money. You may not care, but don’t try to convince me that you’re better off being paid less. Less pay does not equal more passion. Passion wanes.

    You want better teachers? Money isn’t the issue. Letting people teach is the issue.

    I spent 1 year teaching remedial chemistry at Michigan State University (technically as a “TA”, but since I was the only exposure to a human being, and I spent the teaching time in a room lecturing and explaining things, I’m pretty sure that qualifies as a ‘teacher’). I spent another year doing supplemental instruction for an ‘honors’ course in general chemistry. I spent a year and a half lecturing on hard sciences to people studying for the MCAT/VCAT. I have designed and presented more training modules than I can count for everything from hazardous waste management to filling out documentation properly. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, 2 years of post-graduate work in physical chemistry, and in 9 months, I’ll have a master’s degree in public health.

    Yet, I am not ‘qualified’ to teach your children about atoms or gravity or multiplication.

    Teacher’s unions (some of the most powerful in the country) have a vested interest in not letting me teach. Why? Their power depends upon retaining control of the criteria for letting people teach. What I don’t understand is why they don’t want me to teach.

    Lest you think that I believe anyone can teach anything – absolutely not. There is a vast, and perhaps unbreachable, chasm between teaching 1st Graders and teaching High School Physics. I am qualified to teach physics. I am not qualified to teach 5 year olds. I wouldn’t want to do so; and I wouldn’t someone with my qualifications teaching my first-grader.

    There is no single metric against which we can measure the qualification of a teacher. We shouldn’t insist that they all come from the same mold. It is regrettable that someone like myself is denied the ability to pass on my knowledge – and passion! – of science. My experience in a laboratory, in graduate school, and in other fields surrounding chemistry and physics would provide an excellent opportunity for students to learn about the reality of science, not just words in a book. After all, how many of them understand what it is that a chemist does, not just the science?

    A person with professional experience should be considered for teaching positions (including history and English). Yes, additional course work might be required for instructing lower grades, where pedagogical methods are more important to effectively transmit the information and to teach the students how to learn. In upper grades, for example the science and math classes everyone keeps harping about (as if history wasn’t important), an apprenticeship should suffice. Give her/him a year with mentoring from another teacher to make sure they won’t screw up too badly, and then let them go forth and teach the whole nation.

  • Alison

    Ryan, if I a nickel for every time I heard ‘people don’t go into teaching for the money – they become business majors if they want money’ I could have stayed in teaching.

    There is no logic in why this has to be correct. Does passion for your job have to correlate inversely to pay? Should we lower the pay for all people who love their jobs? The other end of the argument doesn’t hold up either. Are business majors driven only by greed? Isn’t there the possibility that some people just have a passion for leadership, just as others have a passion for teaching or art or auto mechanics? Should we reduce the pay for business people who are passionate about leadership?

  • Carolynn

    Hearing about the extreme need for teachers and that people with “real world” experience were in demand for teaching, I decided to check it out. I have a B.A., earned with a B+ average, and had been working in the business world mananaging people and a 45 million dollar territory.

    I am also an excellent trainer and teacher.

    I couldn’t teach in MN without a Master’s Degree. There were 2 routes – a M.A. or M.Ed. The M.A program requires a full time day program. The M.Ed could be taken evenings and weekends. Because I needed to support myself while attending school, I opted for the M.Ed.

    The program at the “U” was so junior and rinky dink that I left the program.

    Now not only am I not teaching, (which is a very low paying job, by the way), but I am also paying off close to 20K in student loans.

    2 problems:

    1. Cost of tuition is out of this world.

    2. Teaching is too important a job to pay so poorly.

    Where are our priorities?