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Where are the Big Bucks in Teaching?


It’s hard to find many teachers who say they entered this profession to earn the big bucks. But at the end of the day, a decent salary still matters, no matter what your occupation. So exactly how much do teachers make? How do teachers’ salaries compare to professions that require similar skills? How do salaries affect efforts to recruit and retain talented teachers?

Quality Counts 2008 takes on some of these common questions with a new pay-parity-index. This index examines how public school teachers' earnings size up with those for workers in 16 comparably-skilled occupations, such as accountants, computer programmers, reporters, and registered nurses. This analysis reveals that teachers earn 88 cents for every dollar earned by such similarly skilled workers. It also shows that teachers earn pay equal to or above that of workers in comparable fields in only ten states, with Rhode Island receiving the highest value of 111.8 (a value of 100 means teachers earn as much as workers in comparable occupations). Of the remaining 41 states, less than half received a value above 90 and two states, Missouri and North Carolina, had lower than 80, earning 78.8 and 79.3, respectively.

But wait, there's more. Teacher salaries tend to be much more compressed than the salaries for workers in the 16 comparable occupations. While other occupations provide opportunities to earn salaries that are considerably above-average, teachers are less likely to receive compensation that is well-above the norm.

What are states doing in the area of compensation reform? States might attract and keep talented people in teaching by making salaries competitive with those in other professions and by rewarding teachers for performance in the classroom. Already, some states have introduced pay-for-performance plans which would tie teacher salaries to such factors as student achievement. However, pay-for-performance programs exist in just seven states and often face political and financial challenges.

What do these findings from the pay-parity analysis suggest about the need for compensation reform? Is the pay-parity-index a useful tool?

Michael Rebell of EdFunding Matters sees the Index’s message as a clear signal that teacher salaries need to be raised:

This just emphasizes the importance of adequate school funding. When we argue for additional resources to schools, we’re talking, in large part, about investing in a professional workforce. It’s unreasonable to expect quality teaching and high retention rates if we’re not willing to make salaries appealing to today’s smart college graduates who have plenty of lucrative career choices available to them.

Ed from AFT’s NCLBlog suggests that increasing base compensation for teachers is the key issue:

If fiscal incentives matter, the first decision for a lot of people is going to be to go into a different field. People motivated by salaries will, rather than wanting to climb to the top of 88 cents on the dollar, go get the dollar itself. …We don’t have in place one of the essential preconditions to having an effective variable pay structure: adequate base compensation. As a result, you get a system where people are being driven to a large extent by the intrinsic rewards of the work, and by the external rewards that come from a kind of cult of teacherdom.

Kevin Carey of The Quick and the Ed, disagrees, however, saying that the index shows that a change needs to be made in how teachers are paid, not how much. He comes out against recent movements by states to create a minimum teacher salary, stating:

The best and most plausible strategy to increase total teacher pay, therefore, is not to raise the floor, but the ceiling—create a methodologically sound system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, in conjunction with labor, and then send the new money to the most effective teachers. Policymakers would go for that, really they would instead of more $40,000 teachers, more $140,000 teachers.

Uncle Charley of the Colorado-based Schools for Tomorrow offers a different type of solution:

The Quality Counts survey hardly has the final word on sweeping questions of teacher pay. Some teachers are overpaid, some teachers are underpaid. Yet the system by and large isn’t constructed to reward them with incentives for success. Maybe, just maybe – as I’ve written before – reformers should consider advocating a reduction of the teaching workforce so we can afford to reward quality teaching effectively, a more efficient way to yield good results.

The Fordham Foundation’s Liam Julian asserts that the pay-parity index is largely misleading:

[The index] fails to account for the fact that teachers work about 9 months a year while architects, editors, etc. typically work a full 12 months. That's both unfair and misleading…And teachers, unlike the folks working in the 16 "comparable" professions, are not accountable for their on-their-job performance. Plus, QC doesn't seem to factor in benefits, which are enormously generous for educators. For all those reasons, a straight salary-to-salary comparison is therefore largely misleading.

For a round-up of how presidential candidates view the teacher pay issue, check out this post in the edweek.org blog Campaign K-12.

What do you think? Do teachers deserve an across-the-board pay raise? Would a merit-based pay-structure work? Or are teachers adequately compensated as it is?

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