An unexpected effect of expanding maternity leave

My talk last night to the Skeptics was on the economics of education. In it, I mentioned two unexpected drivers of the drop in teacher quality. As I argued in my latest AFR oped:

It is rarely recognised, but Australia in the 1960s had two ingenious ways of keeping teacher quality high. First, rampant gender pay discrimination in the professions pushed many talented women into teaching (where gender pay gaps were generally smaller). Second, a highly regulated labour market meant that many companies rewarded their employees based on tenure, not performance – just as teaching did (and still does).

Over the past half-century, these two factors changed radically. On balance, the large-scale entry of women into business, law, and medicine has been a terrific development. But an unintended consequence is that fewer talented women now become teachers. And while the growth of performance pay has benefited many occupations, it has made the uniform salary schedules in teaching look increasingly unattractive to today’s graduates.

On the theme of unexpected factors that might lower teacher quality, a school principal in the audience made a point I’d never heard before. To the extent that teaching is a much better job for parents than most other occupations, the push in other occupations for universal paid maternity leave – and more family-friendly provisions generally - will have the effect of drawing still more talented women out of teaching. Of course, this isn’t an argument against maternity leave (just as the above quote isn’t an argument for going back to a world where 95% of lawyers were men). But it does imply that we should think broadly about policy spillovers; and maybe universal paid maternity leave needs to go hand-in-hand with better pay for teachers.

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4 Responses to An unexpected effect of expanding maternity leave

  1. Pingback: CoreEcon » Blog Archive » Teacher pay and paid maternity leave

  2. conrad says:

    I’ve always believed the first one of these (i.e., the females with no other jobs in the 60s scenario) and I’ve also thought that it was probably a pretty significant predictor (not that I’ve seen any figures trying to estimate what proportion of variance it accounts for in terms of teacher quality and nor that I believe teacher quality has really declined substantially — please provide evidence of this if you think it is true — otherwise it is just smearing a group which gets smeared enough and certainly doesn’t deserve it).

    However, it has occurred to me that that belief might be incorrect. If you look across countries, the extent that females participated in all areas of the workforce across the decades differs quite substantially (i.e., females began to participate in the general workforce much earlier in some countries than others). If it is a decent factor, then we should notice the decline in education scores essentially track this time difference across countries. However, I don’t know if there is any evidence to show this. The other reason I worry is that if we look at where kid’s scores are in decline, then its generally in the areas of maths and science. Literacy scores have held up remarkedly well (including on your own analysis). Given that historically there has always been a huge bias toward maths teachers being male (and some bias toward science teachers being male and English teachers being female), then this doesn’t add up in terms of where performance of kids has declined — they should have decline in literacy and not maths [a caveat here — there may be some primary school effects — but Aus kids perform well at early levels so its not clear to me that it could be that]

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Conrad, I’ve hyperlinked to my study with Chris Ryan on the drop in teacher quality (as proxied by literacy and numeracy). But I think “smear” isn’t the right way to describe it – we’re merely documenting a drop in the mean. While acknowledging that there are still many talented people in the profession, we think there should be more.

    Your second para is fascinating, but I’m not sure the data are good enough for us to get a solid handle on this.

  4. Peter says:

    Another causal factor in the same vein is that until the Whitlam Government’s education sector reforms, higher education was not free. For bright children from non-wealthy families, a scholarship was required needed to attend University. Although the Commonwealth offered scholarships, the easiest scholarships to obtain were those from the various state education departments, and this was still the case in the late 1970s, even after the introduction of TEAS (which was means-tested). A University student who had a Teachers’ Scholarship would have to work for a period teaching in a school following graduation. Having young, bright, enthusiastic and ambitious teachers, even if they only stayed in the profession a few years, can only have been positive.

    There was also a positive benefit, I suspect, from having many teachers who were the first in their family to receive higher education. These teachers knew, personally and directly, the value of education and the benefits of social mobility, and acted to encourage their students in the same direction.

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