Are public school teachers underpaid?

Posted By on February 3, 2007

school busThe Wall Street Journal published an article today (Is $34.06 Per Hour ‘Underpaid’?) that is bringing attention to how much public school teachers are paid. This kind of study will bristle the hairs of many in the education field, but since the common perception is that teachers are underpaid, it seems appropriate that a comparison is made? Unfortunately the linking of “underpaid” and “teachers” is a misconception that many of us make, including First Lady Laura Bush. She has been quoted when speaking about teachers: “Salaries are too low, we all know that and we need to figure out a way to pay teachers more.” That point is certainly debatable.

According to a recent study by the Manhatten Institute for Policy Research, public school teachers are paid better than many professionals. Jay Greene and Marcus Winter use statistics from the Bureau of Labor stating that “teachers earned $34.06 per hour in 2005, 36% more than the hourly wage of the average white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.” Actually in looking at the past 40 years, teacher salaries and benefits have actually risen significantly faster than other professionals. As a country we have nearly doubled the amount spent per student to where in the US we now spend over $500 billion on public education … most going to salaries.

Proponents of higher pay for teacher believe that better salaries will help attract and retain more capable teachers and therefore result in raising student achievement. Unfortunately where this has been tried, it has not proven to be true. A couple examples are pointed to: “Metro Detroit leads the nation, paying its public school teachers, on average, $47.28 per hour. That’s 61% more than the average white-collar worker in the Detroit area and 36% more than the average professional worker. In metro New York, public school teachers make $45.79 per hour, 20% more than the average professional worker in that area. And in Los Angeles teachers earn $44.03 per hour, 23% higher than other professionals in the area,” yet these school systems “do not graduate a higher percentage of their students than areas with lower teacher pay.”

In looking at this from the outside, or inside, as I do have a Master’s in Education, one of the problems is how teachers are paid; the seniority thing. Unlike many professionals who retain and earn raises based on performance, teacher salaries are determined primarily by years of service as well as advanced degree. Unfortunately this doesn’t always result in student improvement. Interestingly an incentive method was tried in Little Rock, Arkansas, whereas a bonus was paid to teachers based on the gains their students made in standardized tests. It was particularly helpful in math proficiency. Greene and Winter point out that a similar evaluation was done by researchers at the University of Florida coming to the same conclusion that performance incentives did work.
Science TeacherAnother concern that I have is that all disciplines are treated similarly when it comes to teacher pay. This runs counter to the supply and demand markets that our nation build its efficiency on. For example, in some school districts there is an overload of teachers in certain disciplines, yet shortages in others. In the business world this is solved by paying the salaries that the market bears. Why shouldn’t a school district be able to hire a person who has a education degree with 20 years in a math/science oriented industry and pay them more than another discipline where there may be an overabundance of teachers or where ‘real world’ business salaries are not as high?

One of the fallacies in looking at “hourly pay” is that it doesn’t take into account the fewer hours per year a teacher actually works, which in the past (and perhaps now) is one of the attractions to being an educator. Who doesn’t enjoy significantly more days off per year than the average worker? With time off in the summer, breaks in the winter and spring, teacher are working as many hours. Perhaps this is a fault/benefit of our US education system? Many teacher I know choose (or are force due to lifestyle choice) to work an additional job during their summers where other enjoy taking time off to travel or be with their families. Personally I think with all the overhead in building and maintaining schools, they should be utilized 12 months a year for education. If students need a break fine, but if a rotation plan was used, communities would better utilized both the personnel they hire and the facilities they build.

Another area that “is not compared” is that of retirement and health benefits. Public school teacher for the most part have much better retirement plans and health benefits than average workers. Also at a time many professionals and blue collar workers are feeling less and less secure in their jobs, teachers near the top in job security. (the ‘tenure’ aspect is pretty attractive)

The article concludes that unlike the misconception that teachers are underpaid, “the fact is that teachers are better paid than most other professionals. What matters is the way that we pay public school teachers, not the amount. The next time politicians call for tax increases to address the problem of terribly underpaid public school teachers, they might be reminded of these facts.”


Desultory - des-uhl-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee

  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.