Faculty Profiles

Sean Corcoran

Assistant Professor

The Teaching Penalty: Teacher Pay Losing Ground, a monograph Corcoran co-authored for the Economic Policy Institute, discusses recent trends in teacher compensation, the retirement benefits that teachers receive, and how much teachers work over the course of a year.

When Sean Corcoran was getting a PhD in economics, he became intrigued by the work of one of his advisors. "He was looking at the economics of public schools, which interested me. And because I'd grown up with parents who are teachers, educational economics began to seem like a natural subject for me to pursue."

Today Corcoran's research focuses on several areas in the economics of education, including teacher labor markets. He recently co-authored a monograph published by the Economic Policy Institute called The Teaching Penalty: Teacher Pay Losing Ground. An update of an earlier publication, it discusses recent trends in teacher compensation, the retirement benefits that teachers receive, and how much teachers work over the course of a year. Two of the major findings the monograph reports are that public school teachers in 2006 earned 15% lower weekly earnings than comparable workers, and that the pay gap between female public school teachers and similarly educated women grew by nearly 28% from 1960 to 2000.

Related to this work, Corcoran is doing some research on how qualified teachers are distributed between schools attended by black students and schools attended by white students. "It's an uneven distribution," he says, "and it's gotten worse over time. Teachers in schools with greater black enrollment generally have lower educational levels, fewer years of experience and are less likely to be certified." His research on this subject will appear in the forthcoming Russell Sage Foundation volume Steady Gains and Stalled Progress, which looks at the black-white achievement gap.

Corcoran attributes the uneven distribution of teachers in part to school choice, another avenue of his research. "Students are more and more racially isolated because of recent school assignment policies, which gives them more choice in the form of open enrollment, charters and vouchers to attend private schools." He notes that when this happens, students move to schools that are more racially similar to the ones that they are leaving. "I want to understand why such choices are having these outcomes, and to see what's fueling the growth of these school choice policies."

To do this, Corcoran is looking at the state of Washington. "It's the only state in the country where there's been a referendum on charter schools, so I thought it was an opportunity to learn about what people felt about school choice." Corcoran collected voting data from every precinct in the state during the years of 1996, 2000, and 2004 - when the votes occurred - and related local referendum results to population and other school-related data. "It seems that people voted on school choice based on how their local schools were doing - whether on standardized tests or the high school drop out rate. But political party affiliation, class size, teacher qualifications, and local demographics also played an important role."

Corcoran is glad students are beginning to get involved in his research. "One student in our Sociology of Education program has been helping me examine teacher labor market issues, particularly the issue of school segregation and teacher quality. My work also comes directly into my classroom. I taught a new course on the economics of education, which covers a lot of topics, but focuses on teacher labor markets, school finance and school choice. The course has been really popular and students seem to love it."

Students, both graduate and undergraduate, are also involved in Corcoran's most recent project, funded by the Spencer and Russell Sage Foundations. "It's part of my ongoing exploration of the politics of school finance reform. We're collecting data from all fifty states on their school finance systems from 1970 to the present. Through the 80s and 90s there were some dramatic changes in how states funded their local school districts. Most of these reforms served to redistribute income from richer areas to poorer areas. We're trying to look at what was behind this redistribution, and what some of the consequences have been." The eventual goal is to use this research to write a book for the Russell Sage Foundation.

In the meantime, Corcoran is looking forward to new collaborations in his department, and through his affiliation with the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy. "We're pooling our talents and working collaboratively between programs. We're also in the midst of developing a masters program in education policy in collaboration with Wagner, something there's a big demand for. I'm really excited to be here while all this is happening."

Sean Corcoran's complete faculty profile.