A new study claims that public school teachers are overpaid. Are they? Depends.

An ongoing whine from teachers unions and their fellow travelers is that public school teachers don’t earn enough money. But according to Andrew Biggs, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute scholar and Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, it is just not true. In fact, in a recently released study, they find that teachers are overpaid. Typically teachers have many perks like excellent healthcare and pension packages which aren’t counted as “income.” Armed with facts, charts and a bevy of footnotes, the authors make a very good case for their thesis. For example, they claim,

“Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.

“When retiree health coverage for teachers is included, it is worth roughly an additional 10 percent of wages, whereas private sector employees often do not receive this benefit at all.

“Teachers benefit strongly from job security benefits, which are worth about an extra 1 percent of wages, rising to 8.6 percent when considering that extra job security protects a premium paid in terms of salaries and benefits.

“Taking all of this into account, teachers actually receive salary and benefits that are 52 percent greater than fair market levels.”

Needless to say, the usual suspects are none too pleased with the report. A teacher-blogger going by New York City Educator calls his piece, “‘That’s Just Mean’: Bullies at the Heritage Foundation.” Okay, whatever.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan claims that

“…public school teachers are ‘desperately underpaid’ and has called for doubling teacher salaries.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten bashed the report, huffing that it’s full of “ridiculous assertions” says,

“The AEI report concludes that America’s public school teachers are overpaid — something that defies common sense — and uses misleading statistics and questionable research to make its case.

“If teachers are so overpaid, then why aren’t more “1 percenters” banging down the doors to enter the teaching profession? Why do 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within three to five years, an attrition rate that costs our school districts $7 billion annually?”

Kim Anderson, advocacy director at the National Education Association, who questions the reliability of the report, chimes in,

“Talented individuals turn away from this rewarding profession because they are forced to choose between making a difference in the lives of students and providing for their families.”

After a quick look at the negative responses, an obvious fix emerges: We should pay teachers by how effective they are in the classroom. By doing this, we would attract a more professional class of teachers. In every other profession in America, people are paid by how competent and productive they are. Good doctors earn more money than their less talented colleagues; good lawyers command higher fees than those who regularly lose their court cases, etc. Why do we make a special case for education – where competency is paramount?

It’s because teachers are positioned in our society like industrial workers, not professionals. Government run schools and the powerful teachers unions have coalesced to make teaching the equivalent of working in a glorified auto plant. Due to the one-size-fits-all nature of collective bargaining, we have an appalling system whereby teachers can make more money simply by logging years on the job and by taking useless professional development classes. Teacher quality throughout almost every school district in the country is a non-factor in teacher compensation.

Hence the real answer to the question, “Are teachers overpaid?” is no and yes. The good ones are most definitely underpaid and the mediocre and worse are most definitely overpaid. Andrew Biggs points this out,

“…across-the-board pay increases are hardly warranted. What is needed is pay flexibility, to reward the best teachers and dismiss the worst.”

In his review of the teacher pay study, AEI’s Rick Hess analyzes the rigidity of the current system,

“In a routine day, a 4th grade teacher who is a terrific English language arts instructor might teach reading for just 90 minutes. This is an extravagant waste of talent, especially when one can stroll down the hallway and see a less adept colleague offering 90 minutes of pedestrian reading instruction.”

On Jay Greene’s blog, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke sums it all up quite well,

“Effective teachers should be handsomely rewarded for the impact they are having on a child’s education. By reforming compensation policies in a way that accounts for the abilities of great teachers to improve student outcomes, we will ensure excellent teachers are richly compensated, and mediocre teachers have a strong incentive to improve.”

Teachers need to demand freedom from the government-teacher union monopoly. Until they escape from this highly unprofessional set-up, join other professionals and are paid according to their ability, they will continue to be treated as interchangeable parts. Yes, if they follow this advice, they may lose some of their union guaranteed perks. But in exchange, they will be treated as professionals with all the respect, esteem and compensation accorded to those in that class.

But in the meantime, we will continue to overpay bad and mediocre teachers and underpay the good ones. And the teachers unions and their allies will keep on bellyaching about yet another lousy state of affairs that they are responsible for.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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