How Should We Pay Teachers?

Do they earn too little — or too much? The pay question has no easy answers

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Ira Block / National Geographic / Getty Images

Listen to the pundits, and public education has a Goldilocks problem. Are teachers being overpaid, underpaid or paid just right? Few arguments in education are as contentious — or as misleading. A report released Nov. 1 by two conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, set off fireworks with the claim that teachers are overpaid by a collective $120 billion each year and that their pensions, health care and other benefits make their total compensation 52% higher than “fair market levels.”

The report looked at a variety of factors to reach its conclusion. Some are well known issues; for instance, teachers enjoy more generous benefits than most workers. But the analysis also rested on a variety of debatable assumptions about the quality of the teaching force, the job security that teachers have and opportunities for teachers in the private sector. Only by accepting all of the authors’ assumptions do you reach the eye-popping $120 billion figure.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions blasted the report, and conservatives saw its findings as further evidence that the unions are putting one over on the American people. Mostly lost in the back and forth was the more complex reality of teacher pay. Here are three important factors that need to be considered:

Geography: Teacher salaries are set locally, and there’s a wide variation between wealthy and poor districts. At the high end, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Virginia’s suburban Fairfax County earns $44,440 for a 194-day contract (for most professionals, the work year is about 250 days). Salary rises a little if additional responsibilities are taken on, like coaching a team or supervising a club. Given the high cost of living in Fairfax, which is right outside Washington, these first-year teachers are not one-percenters jetting off to Martha’s Vineyard for vacation. But in many communities, if teachers stick with the profession for 20 years or more and marry another teacher who does the same, they’ll find their way into the top fifth of U.S. household incomes. Not too shabby.

Drive an hour south, however, to Virginia’s rural Madison County, and the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $37,000; over the next 19 years, it will slowly rise to $44,000. That’s a tough sell, even when you account for Madison’s lower cost of living. And around the country there are more Madisons than Fairfaxes.

Subject matter: Unlike most fields, where there are differences in compensation for different kinds of skills, teachers are overwhelmingly paid through a lock-step system called “steps and lanes.” Steps are years of service and lanes are earned degrees. This sounds sensible except ample research shows that higher degrees are not a proxy for greater effectiveness in the classroom. And while most professions pay some premium for experience, the evidence is clear that after a few years of teaching, the relationship between experience and effectiveness isn’t strong enough to be the overwhelming determinant of pay it is now.

This system also doesn’t take into account basic issues of supply and demand. Schools struggle to find math, science, special-education and foreign-language teachers, but pay these all too rare creatures the same salaries as teachers of subjects for which there are plenty of qualified applicants. And while the conversation makes many uncomfortable, we have to start asking whether it makes sense to pay physics teachers and physical education teachers exactly the same. Not because one subject is more important than another, but because one kind of teacher is more plentiful than the other.

Total compensation: One thing teachers have in common with CEOs and Wall Street types is that their annual salary leaves out a lot of what they are actually earning. Discussions about teacher pay often fail to account for the weeks they get off in the summer. And another significant difference is benefits. Generally speaking, teachers enjoy health benefits and retirement benefits — largely through traditional pensions — that are more generous than other workers. For example, earlier this year during the protests in Wisconsin, it was widely reported that the average salary of Milwaukee teachers was $56,500. But University of Arkansas economist Bob Costrell looked at total compensation including benefits and found it was $100,005. That’s a lot more cheese.

Bottom line: Saying teachers are systematically overpaid or persistently underpaid not only obscures the reality of the education landscape, it ignores a key lever that policymakers could be using to improve teacher effectiveness, i.e., paying the good ones more. Today, as a country, we don’t have the teaching force we need. Although raising salaries won’t fully offset problems like lousy working conditions or inept management that repel many would-be teachers, pay is obviously one important tool to attract and retain great teachers.

So from where I sit, we should pay teachers more but we should also pay them differently. Linking those two issues seems the best way through the current logjam.