In (reluctant) support of teachers

I’m no great fan of school teachers (at least as found in contemporary New Zealand –  a re-read last week of Goodbye Mr Chips was another matter altogether).  Over ten years now we’ve encountered a handful of very good teachers, quite a few duds, and lots who seemed no better than mediocre.  There was the Principal who, when my oldest child started school, told a gathering of parents of new entrants that it was really quite inappropriate to teach content as almost all of it would be out of date before long.   And when this particular Principal (together with the NZEI) was using the pages of the Dominion-Post to promote my daughter’s teacher –  apparently genuinely excellent –  as an illustration of the case for more pay, I made myself unpopular by noting that in the same school there were less than outstanding teachers, and that most people knew who they were.   Then there was the science teacher at the local intermediate school teaching conspiracy theories around 9/11.      Teachers who want to tell students off for discussing the previous day’s playground incident in which a deeply troubled student was on the loose with a knife and the school was in lockdown.   And then there is the endless “indoctrination”, mostly probably by teachers not quite smart enough to realise there really is an alternative view to their particular right-on views on colonialism, capitalism, homosexuality or whatever, and not apparently trained to the view (common in my youth) that a teacher’s personal political views (let alone sexual preferences) weren’t something to obtrude into the classroom.   If there are any teachers in Wellington sympathetic to a market economy, they must keep rather quiet about it.

So I’m not normally overly sympathetic to teachers.  And mostly we are stuck with them –  the teachers’ unions being among those most strongly opposed to effective school choice.   That said, as a stay-at-home parent, their stopwork meetings and strikes don’t inconvenience, or greatly bother, me.  It can be nice to have a bonus day at home together.

Of course, like any occupation there can at times be difficulty filling particular teaching positions.  When I was young we moved from Christchurch to Kawerau, and either on the day we arrived, or possibly the next day, the Principal of the local high school was on the door step.  He’d heard that the new Baptist minister’s wife had science qualifications and teaching experience (10 years previously) and he was desperate for staff.

Perhaps not all such specific vacancy stories tell anything meaningful about salaries and/or working conditions.  But when the stories multiply, and there is evidence of a material gap between demand and supply (demand exceeding supply) at the current price is usually a sign that the price should be rising, perhaps quite a bit.

How confident can we be that there is a shortage of teachers at current salaries?  Principals tell us so, but they –  members of same unions –  aren’t entirely disinterested observers (it was only a few weeks ago that a newsletter came home from one local school in which the Principal urged us parents to get along and support the teacher protest).    And almost every day, at least in the schools I have exposure to (three at present), there is a warm body in front of each class.

But then in this morning’s newspaper we read that the government itself –  the ultimate employer/funder of most school teachers –  recognises the problem.  The Minister of Education “is pledging to find at least 400 overseas teachers for the 2019 academic year”.

Which is rather convenient for the government surely?  As the near-monopsonist purchaser of school teaching services, it deals with shortages by using its power as  controller of the immigration and work visa regime to attempt to meet its staffing problems.

As I’ve written previously, there can be a place for work visas where, for example, there is a sudden and unexpected increase in a demand for a particular skill, or even where a particular skill is very rare (the market for some speciality skills can be very thin indeed).   But there are no real surprises as to how many teachers are needed nationwide –  at bare minimum for people born here there is a five year lead time, and that for new entrant teachers.  And decent teaching skills aren’t, or shouldn’t be, that hard to come by –  the PPTA apparently claims 17000 members.    These should be jobs that can be perfectly adequately filled by local residents –  who will have the added bonus of understanding the local culture –  at least if the labour market was allowed to work.

A few months ago I wrote here (and here) about how the work visa system appeared to be enabling local authorities to keep down bus driver wages and (thus) fares and ratepayer funding by substituting foreign workers in place of locals.    The bus driver case looked particularly egregious –  it being a quite modestly-skilled role into which someone could be trained in 6-8 weeks.   But it isn’t clear to me that the school teacher case is really so different, even granting that the skill levels are higher, and thus the inevitable local training and recruitment lags would be a bit longer.

Of course, like all work visa applications the case for importing teachers will be supported by evidence that locals couldn’t be recruited. But if you keep the wage level down it isn’t overly surprising that New Zealanders with other options will pursue them, and you will be left with an apparent shortage.

And the market in teachers is a pretty dysfunctional one.  We have national pay scales even though it must be a great deal harder to get teachers in Auckland than in Timaru (and that private sector jobs typically pay a bit more, for the same job, in Auckland than in Timaru), the pay scales for secondary teachers don’t differentiate by subject (even though the alternative options for a good science teacher and a good history teacher may be quite different, and we still have something like pay parity between kindergarten teachers and secondary school teachers.   For that we can blame both the teacher unions and successive governments (National-led and Labour-led).

Nonetheless,  there does seem to be a shortage of (good) teachers, and it isn’t obvious that the government should be able to use the immigration system to avoid meeting the market (while no doubt claiming in other fora that heavy use of work visas in particular sectors doesn’t hold down wages in those sectors).

When writing about bus drivers, I suggested adopting this sort of policy

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

Even in the context of teacher salaries –  where starting salaries are well above $40000 –  per annum – this looks like the starting basis for a workable model.

More generally, I have argued that

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.

I’m not a fan of the teachers’ union propaganda arguing that some decades ago senior teachers earned as much as MPs, and that they should be again –  MPs seem to have been quite badly underpaid in that earlier period.  But I’d be surprised if the government could show that teacher salaries (and overall working condition-adjusted remuneration) have increased more rapidly than the market generally in recent years.  If not, surely higher salaries –  perhaps regionally differentiated – should be the first part of any adjustment, and if there is any resort permitted to offshore labour markets it should be explicitly temporary, backed by financial incentives/penalties of the sort I outlined above.

It sticks in the craw to stick up for teachers and their unions, but the market indications would appear to be on their side in this particular dispute.   Of course, the fact that there is a shortage doesn’t –  in an administered market like this –  tell one how much salaries should be adjusted (or the onerous paperwork burden eased), or the appropriate balance (starting salaries vs later progresssion) but the direction looks pretty clear.  And the proposal to resort to substantial offshore recruitment looks as if the government has indirectly conceded the case –  even as, again, it continues to preference the interests of offshore people over those of New Zealand workers.  Teachers might be less sympathetic than bus drivers, rest home workers, or shop assistants, but they are New Zealanders too.  Even, as it happens, substantial funders of the Labour Party.

29 thoughts on “In (reluctant) support of teachers

  1. What the heck – you are too kind

    The Department of Education was established in its initial form in 1877 under the Education Act 1877. It’s not as if they are new at this. Been at it for 140 years – and now going down hill. Instead of re-arranging the iron-filings the Government at all times has to be aware of the performance of the education system, bench-marked to prior years.


    Have there been any wage adjustments in the sector since 2008


  2. You are far too kind to the teachers unions. Please keep in mind that they are in complete opposition to any completion in the purchase of tracher labour and hence supporters of the current monopsonist system. Perhaps if they stood up for their members and welcomed a system which competed for teachers instead then we wouldn’t be in this mess. Please note that I completely agree teachers are underpaid, but the union explicitly supports the reason for this.


  3. When the Labour/NZfirst/Greens government freely gives away billions of dollars to the Polynesian island nations. I can fully understand why teachers feel left out. So do nurses, doctors, the police and every other government employee. It is rather insulting that their needs are not put before this rather wasteful attitude of Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters. To add further salt to the wound, they increased the Muslim refugee intake to now 1500 a year and hundreds of millions will go towards building more mosques in NZ.


    • Not sure the PM and Deputy are capable of joining those dots. Seems to be a quality of this and the previous government. Making decisions and implementing policies that are contradictory. Shooting themselves in the foot.

      Is there any difference between Unions and the Lobbyists that the previous Government tugged their forelocks to

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Michael, you might be interested in the UK Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendations for UK skills-based immigration settings post-Brexit. They recommend relatively a relatively simple system where a GBP30,000 salary threshold is the main binding constraint, with job classification, industry, nationality and quotas having a lesser or no role. They see no need for a pathway for low paid migrants aside from perhaps seasonal horticultural workers and reciprocal working holiday arrangements. It looks somewhat like your preferred model, although a bit less restrictive.

    Click to access Final_EEA_report.PDF


      • I used to pay $35k for bookkeepers. I still pay $35k for staff on workpermits who can’t speak English well. Once they reach a level of English proficiency the pay goes up to $51k. At $51k I still can’t get locals to work for that pay. At $60k offer I just get local applicants that want $70k and have applied to try and move that wage upwards during the interview.


      • The other option would have been to pay $10k per annum to have the work outsourced to the Phillipines. I opted for the work to be done in NZ at minimum wage. Huge amount of training and patience do go into those newby workers.


  5. When you write about governance of the Reserve Bank comments are sparse but everyone is an expert about education so expect many comments. I can feel half a dozen echoing in my skull but they are about pheripheral issues such as bus drivers being modestly-skilled but having a job of high responsiblity unlike say professional economists. However to get to the nub of your argument I’d select this quote “” MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways that generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy. “”

    Your idea of $20,000pa per skilled work visa has my enthusiastic support. If it is good enough for PNG then it is good enough for NZ [although my memory was their work visa cost roughly the same as two annual salaries for local teachers].

    Our applicants for permanent residency are not poor, they pay for their flights, they often pay agents in country of origin and in NZ, they frequently pay significant amounts for tertiary education in NZ of sometimes dubious quality and then it is estimated one in three pay their employer for their job.

    Adding $20,000pa to the employers cost would not stop immigrants paying to get jobs that qualify for permanent residency but at least it would tend to move the practice to genuine skilled employees (say skilled computer analysts) and it would remove the penalty for being an honest business. MBIE wastes its time trying to identify skills; qualifications they can identify but not skills; they can only be identified by salary.


    • Might as well call it a chinese and Indian poll tax because only British migrants with a higher valued currency than the NZD can apply which is a form of race based discrimination. NZ professionals are particularly adept at mislabelling to get past the rules.


      • I would say the exact opposite. A UK citizen who wants to live in NZ has few costs; most of the immigration application can be handled without an agent; the degree or other necessary qualification can be obtained in the UK and be accepted in NZ and they have no need to prove they can speak English nor have all their qualifications expensively translated into English. They arrive in NZ and persuade an employer such as you to take them on and to describe the job with a suitable skill – say your bookkeepers become logistic experts or whatever takes the INZ fancy.
        Compare that to your Chinese of Indian: they pay for an airfare which is comparable to an average annual salary and they pay the local agent to get a suitable PTE in NZ to accept them, then they attend an expensive course (only NZ residents get their fees paid or partly paid) studying something they have little interest in that is being poorly taught by inadequate teachers. Then they pay immigration agents in NZ and work picking fruit while waiting for their so called studies to finish, then as per this link they pay employers to employ them. At the end of all that they still end up being deported but are now $35,000 in debt in a counry where that is a very serious amount.

        Now consider the proposed $20,000pa as a definition of a skill. The single best computer programmer I have met in New Zealand was a young man from Kerala; his NZ boss/business owner really appreciates his worth and I am sure would be more than willing to pay $20,000pa until he obtained permanent residency. In fact his employer will be blind to his ethnic origin and will only concentrate on ability.

        The only part you and I agree on is the ‘race based discrimination’. Quite simply public opinion would never permit naive young European nationals to be exploited the way Filipino, Chinese, Indians and Indonesians are in New Zealand. It is a national disgrace and to be fair to the minister Mr Lees-Galloway is willing to admit that there is a problem but he thinks he can fix it with more labour inspectors and he won’t because it needs policy changes.


      • I am pretty sure that those same skills are available in Kerala by the tens of thousands but NZ firms would not employ them without NZ work experiece. Your Kerala chap must have to first come into NZ under his own steam which means that he would be just another Kerala top notch programmer working in Kerala and unemployable in NZ.


  6. I would support the government if it came up with an offer to pay teachers in particular regions more than others (as happens in the UK) or teachers of particular skills (maths springs to mind) more then some of the specific vacancies would be addressed.
    Naturally the unions will reject the offer, their socialist ideology acting against the best interests of their members.
    And there has been a total failure of staffing planning. The department should know roughly what their requirements are going to be over the next five years (the children are already in the system) so they should be training people to fill them and improving the pay and conditions to ensure that supply satisfies demand.


  7. It isn’t that long ago teaching graduates couldn’t get jobs. Many I would imagine found other sources of employment as a result. Maybe one approach could be to try and attract them back.


    • The teacher supply has been in a boom bust type cycle for as long as I can remember. Back in the 70s the remedy was to give generous benefits to teacher trainees.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes..I am one of those who studied for a degree full-time in the late 70s, paid around $2k a year, then finished with a 1-yr education diploma in secondary teaching. As you say, by the time I graduated after 4 years there was a teacher glut and I never obtained a position. I was forgiven my bond and I made a career in another sector entirely.


  8. Thanks Michael for sticking up for the teachers. This line made me smile “If there are any teachers in Wellington sympathetic to a market economy, they must keep rather quiet about it.” As a teacher myself I’ve often argued that there should be some allowance or bonus (or whatever) for hard to staff subject areas which could be determined by some kind of market test. The same could go for various geographical regions (although there has been a high priority staffing allowance for some time – generally for areas like the West Coast etc). The trouble is that many of my colleagues can’t get it into their heads that while Math and Science teachers (into which category I fall) may have to be paid more for a time to attract more of such teachers into the game, a time may come when Media Arts and P.E. may be hard to staff and thus require such economic incentives.
    As for performance pay I’ve always been open to it in some form but am yet to see a workable, non-corruptible/nepotistic model. Be glad to hear your ideas.


    • Teaching and computer programming and jazz solos are impossible to measure. Attempts to measure performance distorts performance. However it only takes a few minutes for a good programmer to know if another programmer is competent. It must be the same for teachers. So the best way of judging teachers is to ask their head of department, their school principal and a few external assessors. The result will be arbitrary but over a career it will balance itself out.


    • Thanks Dave

      I don’t think I advocated performance pay in this post. In general I am sympathetic, based on the view that even parents usually know who the really good and very bad teachers are, which surely must leave heads and Boards able to come to such a view. There are always problems with discretionary systems, but I worked in one for 30 years and it seemed to operate reasonably well – again people knew who the really good and really bad analysts and managers were, and mostly (but not always) remuneration adjustments roughly reflected that.


      • Thanks Michael. I realise you didn’t advocate for for performance pay in your post, I was just interested in people’s ideas on it as a way to address supply of quality teachers so thanks for the replies.


      • My experience with primary schools has been that the excellent teachers leave because they are not supported by the principals who instead spend a lot of time defending poor teachers. No feedback from parents seems to make it into the development plans for teachers, and if you have a situation as bad as a child not wanting to go to school because of the teacher you are made to feel it is some how your fault for not raising your child to completely defer to the will of a teacher.

        I actually wonder if the fix is to introduce anti-monopoly laws for unions. If a real alternative existed to the NZEI teachers and schools could escape from the ideology of being mediocre is fairest for all.


  9. As a former secondary teacher who did some reasonably yards for 10 years in mostly quite tough schools and PPTA member, I’ll tell you why I will never return to the NZ classroom.

    The money isn’t great, but it’s okay and its not the main problem.

    It’s the conditions.

    Number 1: Student behaviour. It is out of control. Someone needs to do a hidden camera number on this in NZ because in a lot of our schools the behaviour is terrible. The stress it causes teachers isn’t worth even a 100K per annum. Discipline is now a dirty word and principals and senior management hide behind restorative justice processes and tacitly blame teachers for it (“oh but the teacher provoked him/her”). I have seen so many other teachers throw in the towel for this reason. Good teachers who had a lot of potential.

    Number 2: Workload. Endless initiatives by the Ministry and senior management that always add workload and never take anything away. The workload is INSANE. I wanted to do the job well so I used to get up at 4.30am to do preparation until 6am, then get to school at 6.30am to do further set up and then see students before school, then work through breaks and then stay for meetings until 5pm and then often get out the laptop again after dinner. The number of sleepless nights I had trying to reinvent lessons in my head that would somehow work for a particularly behaviourally difficult class. Maybe 50 times or so I worked full 5 period days (5 hours of presentations for the non-teacher to understand – to an often hostile audience) on zero hours of sleep. I was considered a good teacher and trotted out for ERO to visit, or held up as diligent for other staff to emulate. The price of being “good” was self-destruction.

    Number 3: Ideologically driven pedagogy. Everything these days has to be “inquiry learning.” Even if in your professional opinion direct instruction is far more suitable for a particular piece of content or group of students. Groupthink dominates and if you question the drive to co-operative learning and inquiry learning (and their corollary – the Modern Learning Environment) you are persona non grata. It is a totalitarian regime masquerading as something intensely democratic and ‘lefty’. Don’t get me started on the wishy-washy nature of the curriculum and the lack of easy to use textbooks and set resources meaning most teachers are reinventing the wheel unnecessarily…. whilst under constant pressure to wow the crowd with every lesson.

    So, by all means give teachers a raise, but for me, I’d rather be working minimum wage than back at school until these conditions change.

    To survive in the job you have to not care too much about poor behaviour, not try too hard do the job properly and not question the pedagogical orthodoxy. That’ teaching in NZ in my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I left teaching for your above reasons for a time and then I returned in a different school where the 3 points you outline have been reasonably well addressed. Sure the ministry is stuck in a form of groupthink that pervades most schools but not all. Fortunately I’m in a position that if anyone higher up tries to go me for not abiding by ministerial ideology I can walk out the door (much to most of my students and their parents displeasure) and on to other things. What keeps many teachers in check is that the “powers that be” have them over a barrel.


    • Thanks. Really interesting perspectives, which resonate from what I’ve seen/heard from the parent side of things. It is sad. It should be a great job, with few things more satisfying (in my experience) than people come to understand something, or find a real interest in some or other area of learning.


      • Thanks. To be honest, deep down I am really sad that I had to leave – I sobbed non-stop on my own when I resigned – because I did love so many aspects of teaching and built up a lot in my role that I had to just walk away from. The creativity of the job and the relationships you build with young students is very rewarding. Two of my students getting Scholarship at a low decile school was a highlight. Everyone said I was good at teaching – but they didn’t see the hidden costs. The bad sides of it definitely turned me into a stressed-out borderline alcoholic. Don’t get me started on trying to combine full-time teaching with being a mother doing most of the household management as well! Even though I am on the Left of the political spectrum, I have a lot of time for Katharine Birbalsingh and what she is doing at the Micahaela School in London – no excuses discipline, a knowledge-based curriculum and direct instruction. I think that is truly progressive in that poor kids – when I visited – seemed to be learning much more efficiently and effectively than they do in NZ schools. And no constant low-level disruption stressing out teachers and distracting students. Their first GCSE results next year will be very interesting.

        One thing you might consider is the pay issue with part-time teachers. Part time teachers are not paid for non-contact time properly on a pro-rata basis. It’s not fair. If you work half time (10/20 hours contact) you should be paid 50% of the salary (not 10/22.5). It’s not like you write fewer reports, or leave 5 minutes early for each of those lessons just because you’re part-time. But you are paid significantly less by the way they calculate salaries. Discouraging for teachers who have left for family reasons to come back part-time. And by-God, schools need their part-timers for staffing complex student timetable needs and to offer lots of options.


  10. Personally I would be most concerned about the “endless indoctrination”. I dread the thought of an emerging generation indoctrinated with identity politics and social justice warriorism, all rooted in cultural Marxist concepts of privileged oppressive classes disempowering the oppressed. That portends a future that is almost certainly going to be less free and more authoritarian.


    • In NZ we have
      The Peoples Worksafe authority
      The Peoples Tenancy Tribunal
      The Peoples Social Housing Authority
      The Peoples Agricultural protection authority
      The Peoples Te Reo languages authority
      The Peoples gender equality authority
      The Peoples equal pay authority
      The Peoples equal wealth distribution authority

      Can NZ get any more Marxist communist than Karl Marx?


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