One of the more enduring education-policy myths is that public-school teachers are “underpaid” on average, and therefore that raising teacher pay across the board would improve student achievement. The latest exercise in mythmaking is a Time article titled, “Teachers Make Less Than Peers in Almost Any Other Job,” which draws on an international survey of teacher pay published by the OECD. The main point of the article is that teachers receive lower salaries than other workers with the same level of education. Therefore, teachers must be underpaid.
There are several problems with that reasoning. First, two people do not have the same skills just because they spend the same number of years in college or graduate school. Consider that architects earn more money than other workers with the same level of education. Does that mean architects are “overpaid”? Fields of study matter, and the education degree — held by roughly half of teachers — is considered one of the least rigorous. Equating it to a degree in, say, computer science makes for a misleading comparison.
Second, the OECD data cover only salaries, not fringe benefits. As with most public-sector jobs, compensation for teaching is weighted more heavily toward pension and health benefits compared to the private sector. In fact, the value of fringe benefits (as a percentage of wages) for the average public-school teacher is more than double the benefits package received by the typical worker in a large private-sector firm. Teachers also enjoy considerably more job security than their counterparts in the private sector. Perhaps the best indication that overall compensation is adequate is that few teachers leave for a different profession, and, when they do, they typically are not able to find higher-paying jobs.
Third, what would an across-the-board pay increase buy us? Teacher quality certainly matters, but predicting who will be an effective teacher is not easy. As the modest-at-best results of programs like Teach for America suggest, simply unleashing young Ivy Leaguers on our school system is probably not going to have a dramatic effect on student achievement.
Paying the most effective teachers enough to keep them in the classroom makes sense. An across-the-board increase for the profession does not.