Teachers: Overpaid or Underpaid?

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Preface:The following post pertains more to public schools than private education. Many of the ideas presented are relevant for both.

“Teachers are underpaid.”

A common refrain, but is it true?

Decades of statistics on teacher compensation and benefits are freely available, so I won’t rehash that information here.

A few links of interest:




A discussion on the “why” of teacher compensation is not only more interesting but might offer solutions for educational improvement across the board.

Let’s start by defining “underpaid” in the context of employment.

I’d offer this definition of compensation in the workplace:

Compensation in an industry is sufficient if there are (roughly) an equal amount of willing-and-able applicants for positions available.

It’s a labor equilibrium of sorts.

When demand for a position significantly outpaces availability, one can argue that practitioners are overpaid.

The compensation offered (pay, benefits, job tasks) exceeds the costs of taking the job (occupational hazards, hours, costs of education etc.).

Teachers, as a whole, are overpaid.

For the last 30 years, teaching has been one of the most popular careers in the country. Ratios of 100+ applicants to teaching vacancy are not uncommon.

(To be clear, compensation encompasses more than just pay and benefits. Sincere interest in the profession is a factor. Many teachers love to teach—one can’t quantify that.

In addition, specialized subject areas, like math and science, should offer higher-than-average pay in order to attract more qualified applicants.)

If teacher compensation is less than ideal, it’s for two reasons:

1) Market forces: Many more prospective teachers than vacant positions. Excess supply (teachers) leads to a reduction in price for buyers (schools).

2) Teachers Unions: Use collective bargaining to protect medicore and sub-standard performers at the expense of the good and the great. Instead of negotiating on their own, teachers are lumped together with peers whose performances may be vastly different from their own. The ability to land pay and benefits commensurate with great performance is compromised by the lack of negotiation leverage.

Ironically, if the teachers unions supported increased accountability, average compensation per teacher would rise significantly. Schools would have to compete more vigorously for the best teachers. Artificial caps on salary/benefits installed by the government reduce the need for public schools to pay top-dollar for teachers. Star performers get less than their production warrants— much less likely to happen in a more open, objective market.

In this regard, professional athletes and teachers are not as different as you might think.

You can see this effect in rent-controlled apartments across the country. Landlords have little incentive to improve the quality of life for renters in those building because demand for those living spaces far exceeds. In other words, the minute an unhappy tenant moves out of a crime-ridden, poorly-maintained apartment, there are ten others ready to take his place.

There are some differences between rent-controlled apartments and teacher stratification, but the underlying principles remain the same. In private-sector jobs, companies must offer attractive compensation packages to attract interest from elite candidates. That’s a big reason why many law school graduates pull in six-figure salaries right out college (although much of that pay is funny money).

Teachers unions would actively facilitate the success of it’s members by allowing excellent teachers to seek the most favorable compensation available and encouraging struggling teachers to find work more suitable to their interests and talents.

Another lurking variable in this discussion is the role of the students in school performance. Nowadays, teacher compensation is increasingly tied to test scores. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint where teacher culpability ends and student/family responsibility begins.

Cultural values and preferences are almost always understated in debates on school and student performance. Calling out under-performing students and their families (“blaming the victim”, as many would say) is never popular. Unfortunately, some families only pay lip service to scholastic achievement. They don’t maintain a dialogue with their kids’ teachers or monitor homework and studying on a regular basis.

Save for those with legitimate learning disabilities, there are very few students who could not maintain respectable grade point averages in school if they put forth a sincere effort.

That’s a discussion for another day….

Teaching carries certain inherent stress factors (unruly kids, stubborn administrators, long hours) and there are noble reasons why many enter the profession. Schools are a pillar of American society.

Many other industries, however, ask employees to work long hours in stressful conditions (“computer software and hardware development” comes to mind). The spoils of their labor enhance society in no small way, either.

Of course, many of those private-sector workers get paid handsomely for their efforts. Union influence and murky variables in school performance standards make it difficult for teachers to do the same.

A non-romanticized view of education (and the job market as a whole) is important for any discussion on compensation and performance in the classroom–for teachers and students alike.

(Comments welcome.)

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