Research vs. Conventional Wisdom III: Competition for Teacher Labor

Research findings about teachers and teacher labor markets sometimes seem to defy conventional wisdom. Dan Goldhaber, director of CALDER at the American Institutes for Research and the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, explores competition for teacher labor in this last of three Education Week guest blog posts.

In my final installment of "Research vs. Conventional Wisdom," I want to address the apparent competition among states for teacher labor. If you follow debates about teacher salaries—particularly where states (rather than districts) play a strong role in determining them—you would think that states are in fierce competition with one another for teacher labor. In my home state of Washington, for instance, the NEA affiliate (the Washington Education Association, or WEA) notes how dismal salaries are here versus those in other states. The WEA site buttresses this claim with statistics like "Washington is dead last in average compensation among West Coast states" and "Washington's average classroom teacher salary rank drops from 5th to 23rd place" (it was 5th in the nation in 1981 and 23rd in 2013). Such statements are common when legislators are debating salary changes. I didn't take the time to check, but chances are that most states are hearing that they are losing ground to others in terms of teacher pay.

For several reasons, average salary is probably not a terribly useful measure of how financially desirable it is to teach in a particular state, but let's set that aside for now. Instead, let's look at why comparing salaries across states is so irresistible. Surely one premise is that states are competing with one another for teacher labor. But where's the evidence for this seemingly sensible idea? As it turns out, there isn't much... until now.

Hot off the presses, I have a new report (jointly completed with colleagues Cyrus Grout and Nate Brown from the University of Washington, and Kris Holden, from the American Institutes for Research) on teachers crossing the Oregon and Washington border to switch jobs. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, shockingly few teachers with experience in one state cross the border to teach in the other. (Perhaps many more teacher candidates trained in one state end up teaching in another—that we don't know.) Over the course of 13 school years in Oregon and 14 years in Washington, less than one-tenth of one percent of Oregon teachers moved to Washington the following year and less than one-twentieth of one percent moved from Washington to Oregon the following year. That's not a misprint—less than one out of a thousand teachers with recorded experience in one state ended up teaching in the other in the following year.

For some perspective, when we focus on a regional labor market—say, the Portland-Vancouver MSA—the rate of within-state mobility is seven times that of cross-state mobility. And four times as many teachers moved at least 250 miles to another district in their state as moved out of state to teach. This sure doesn't look like there's much cross-state competition for teacher labor!

The fact that states do not appear to be competing for teacher labor is not very surprising given the obstacles that teachers face in order to leave employment in one state and take up employment in another. Licensure requirements (e.g., see this on licensure reciprocity), rules related to tenure and seniority, and the structure of teacher pension systems (see this on rigidities in the labor market induced by state pension systems) all disincentivize a cross-state move.

Maybe there is greater cross-state teacher mobility in more populated labor markets (such as the Washington, D.C. area), though we also do a bit of analysis using the Schools and Staffing Survey, a nationally representative dataset, and find little cross-state mobility in general. This isn't too surprising, since research shows that splitting a career across states can cost a teacher hundreds of thousands of dollars of pension wealth alone.

Unfortunately, the labor market rigidities created by state-specific licensure, tenure, and pension-systems go largely unrecognized. Economists believe that a frictionless labor market benefits the economy. In the case of education, we have to ask some tough questions if we think that's true: Wouldn't schools needing teachers in hard-to-staff positions be better off if they could easily hire teachers with the requisite skills from another state (without financially penalizing those teachers)? How many effective teachers who move out of state leave teaching because they don't think it's worthwhile to go back to square one in a new state?

It sure doesn't look like states are competing for teacher labor, but they probably should be!

I want to conclude by thanking Rick for the opportunity to highlight places where research conflicts with conventional wisdom. As is the case with the issue I've highlighted here on cross-state teacher mobility, I think such conflicts are useful if they help to raise questions, reorient thinking, and move policy in productive directions.