Politics & Policy

Teaching Hype

Are teachers really underpaid?

Everyone knows teachers are underpaid. Teachers’ unions remind us frequently that teachers’ pay is well below that of other professionals. Then, too, their salaries barely keep up with inflation and the cost of living. Our teachers are getting shortchanged.

With all the government money going into education, one might wonder how this could be. When you look closer, it appears that average salary rates are not the problem. Teacher salaries may be low, but total compensation (pay plus benefits), considered together with cushy hours and vacation, make the work lucrative.

It is the archaic pay schedules, however, that lead to inequities in teaching. With teacher pay correlated to seniority rather than ability, older teachers and those who are simply ineffective are overpaid at the expense of young teachers and those in hard-to-fill subjects.

Within the current system, teachers will always be underpaid — the good ones, that is.

However, current salary schedules actually pay most teachers competitively and often too much, according to an article by Richard Vedder and Michael Podgursky in the summer issue of Education Next.

To begin with, teaching offers attractive non-financial benefits. Teachers get the entire summer off. It’s hard to imagine lawyers would get paid their ballooning salaries if they took three months off every year. Accountants and attorneys work an average of 240 days a year; teachers work fewer than 190 days — and that’s including conferences, training days, and planning.

Teachers also average fewer than 38 hours a week at school. Union contracts often limit workdays to less than seven hours, including paid lunch breaks. Teachers can be home long before most workers have even started thinking about rush-hour traffic.

Many teachers work beyond their mandated hours, but are free to do so at home — an added flexibility that many would relish, and one that makes it easier to raise a family. That is an important factor, since teaching remains a female-dominated occupation. In “Fringe Benefits,” Podgursky notes that teachers under 40 average 2.1 children, compared with 1.7 for other professionals.

Job security and low risk also make teaching an attractive field. Teaching is relatively free from market risk. Even during a hiring shortage in the 1990s, the number of teacher hires still rose faster than student enrollment. More importantly, those hired still have their jobs, unlike their dot-com counterparts.

These factors are not gained at the expense of monetary compensation. Teachers are given better pensions than most professionals, allowing them to retire earlier, according to Podgursky. Public-school teachers leave their full-time positions at an average age of 59, as versus over 63 for those in the private sector. At that age, finding a job to add to their retirement income is easy and common. In addition, teachers’ pensions are often adjusted for inflation, which is unusual in the private sector.

Great health care is another bonus. Fifty-one percent of teachers are fully covered by their employers, compared to only 20 percent of professional and managerial employees. Vedder found that average teachers’ benefits packages came to 26 percent of their salary. This is compared with 19 percent for “all domestic industries,” and 17 percent for private industries.

In light of these perks, we need to rethink the question of teacher pay. Each year, the American Federation of Teachers compares teachers’ salaries to those of other professions. Teachers only earned $43,250 in the 2000-01 school year; mid-level accountants earned $52,664, computer systems analysts $71,155, engineers $74,920, and attorneys $82,712.

Podgursky correctly points out that these numbers constitute the best argument for pay raises, but also fail to account for education. “One could make a case that the salaries of high-school physics or calculus teachers should bear some resemblance to those of computer systems analysts, but does the AFT believe that the appropriate compensation benchmarks for third-grade teachers are the salaries of engineers or attorneys?”

According to Vedder in “Comparable Worth,” only lawyers and judges earned more per week than teachers did. The additional years of schooling, workload, and weekly schedule easily account for the difference in pay.

When compared with those of similarly educated professionals, teachers’ salaries are competitive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found teacher salaries to be 32 percent lower than those in other occupations. However, the pool of non-teachers also has more high earners, who throw off the average.

Podgursky examined the median salaries of the two groups and found the median teacher’s salary to be $29,000, compared to $32,000 for non-teachers. That’s a difference of only 10 percent. The 31 percent shorter work year puts the variance in the teachers’ favor. And that still doesn’t account for the added teacher benefits I’ve already discussed.

While specific groups of teachers may be underpaid — those in fields that experience shortages and those who are highly effective — public-school teachers nationwide are not being shortchanged. The real tragedy is not low salaries, but salary schedules that reward mediocrity.

Meghan Keane is an NR editorial associate.


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