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The Truth About Teacher Pay

With schools closed for the summer, the debate about teachers' salaries always arises.  Critics argue that no other field provides so many weeks of vacation for so much pay.  There is some truth to that claim, but I believe that a better way of addressing the issue is by comparing teacher salaries in the U.S. with those in the countries we compete with ("Teacher pay around the world," Brookings, Jun. 20).  That's because tests of international competition are closely watched as evidence of teacher effectiveness.

Other developed countries that we compete against pay their teachers much higher salaries than we do. The size of the gap depends on which countries we look at.  Finland is the usual benchmark because of the quality of its schools.  According to Brookings, we would have to give a 10 percent raise to our elementary school teachers, an 18 percent raise to lower secondary teachers, and a 28 percent raise to upper secondary teachers to be even minimally competitive.

I know the argument against boosting salaries. Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine are among the most vociferous in claiming that public school teachers are actually overpaid ("Public School Teachers Aren't Underpaid," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2011).  "In short, combining salaries, fringe benefits and job security, we have concluded that public school teachers receive around 52 percent more in average compensation than they could earn in the private sector."  The only caveat, they stress, is that this premium is stated in terms of averages.  The best teachers in science and math are likely underpaid compared to their counterparts in the private sector.

Since the entire argument is stated in economic terms, I'd like to ask Biggs and Richwine a question:  If public school teachers' salaries already contain a premium for the weeks worked, then why isn't there a flood of college graduates making public school teaching a lifelong career?  After all, economists always cite the law of supply and demand.  Why doesn't it apply to public school teachers?  The fact is that teaching today is far harder than they can possibly understand.  I maintain that if salaries were to rise even 20 percent, there would still be too few college graduates opting for a career in the classroom.  Yes, higher salaries might be enough to recruit them, but higher salaries would not be enough to retain them.

So rather than envy teachers for having most of the summer off, let's admit that they deserve every day to recuperate.  I urge skeptics to try teaching for a semester to understand why.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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