The Plight Of The Puppeteer

For the first couple of decades of median wage stagnation, one could accurately say that wages for college graduates were rising. Therefore it was possible to construe the economic malaise as primarily a skills malaise. But for the past 10 years, wages for BA-holders have also been stagnant. The crisis of growth has grown more generalized, and while more education would be helpful it’s no panacea. This is all true. So when Richard Kim writes this I sympathize:

Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a measure of security (indeed, a master’s degree can boost a New York City teacher’s salary by $10,000 or more). But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has awakened the kids of the middle class to a national nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and tuition bills is shattered. Down is the new up.

But the “Joe” in question was a New York City public school teacher who wracked up $35,000 in debt over three years to obtain an MFA in puppetry from the University of Connecticut and is now frustrated that he can’t get his old job back. This is not what I would make my lead example for a story about the perfidy of the 1 percent or the collapse of the American dream. If anything, it’s a much narrower story about the perfidy of the University of Connecticut MFA program. To a small extent, it’s also a story about a misguided public school teacher compensation system. Joe wound up getting screwed, since between the time he left to get his MFA and the time he got it, the labor market for teachers collapsed. But had he done this earlier in the decade, his three years getting an MFA in puppetry would in fact have qualified him for a $10,000 a year pay bump even though there’s no reason to think getting the MFA would make him a better teacher.

The whole system of paying teachers bonuses to acquire largely meaningless extra credentials is a totally wacky back door subsidy to the nation’s master’s degree programs that mostly serves to waste teachers’ time. Even without getting into any more controversial ideas about teacher compensation, it would make much more sense to scrap these bonuses and reallocate the money to higher base pay across the board. You don’t need an MFA in puppetry to be a good school drama teacher, and if you’re not a good school drama teacher there’s no reason to think an MFA in puppetry is going to turn you into one.