The Problem With Paying Teachers Less

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lara Cerri / St. Petersburg Times /

Shore Acres Elementary fourth grade teacher Telsha Marmash leads her students in a discussion about prefixes Nov. 1, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida.

It’s not often that you hear teachers should be paid less. In fact, it’s almost always the exact opposite. From teachers unions to education reformers to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the refrain that teachers are underpaid is a constant. So, when conservative thinkers at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation issued a paper on Tuesday arguing not only that teachers are overpaid, but when you factor in pensions, health care and other benefits, that total compensation for teachers is 52% higher than fair market value, it was bound to be controversial.

To get to that conclusion, AEI and Heritage focused on three main findings:

The wage gap between teachers and non-teachers disappears when both groups are matched on an objective measure of cognitive ability rather than on years of education.

Translation: Teachers have lower IQs than their non-teacher equivalents because education degrees are easier to get. There are plenty of people who would find this assertion offensive, but even taken at face value, it doesn’t necessarily show that teachers are overpaid. Experts say one of the best ways to attract highly qualified people with advanced skills into the teaching profession is to pay higher wages.

Public school teachers earn higher wages than private school teachers, even when the comparison is limited to secular schools with standard curricula.

This is probably true, but is not a very useful comparison because working for private schools has its own set of advantages, such as a lighter emphasis on standardized tests and better job security, that can’t be measured by salary alone.

Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9%, while teachers who leave the profession on average see their wages decrease by roughly 3%.

The biggest problem with this finding is that while it may be true, you have to consider where non-teachers are coming from when they enter the profession. Since it’s hard to attract highly skilled workers to teaching, many enter the profession from other low-paying fields or from jobs that did not require a college degree. If a highly skilled science major is choosing between pursuing a career in teaching or going into bioengineering, unless the person is incredibly idealistic, dollars and cents will likely win out.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says the paper “uses misleading statistics and questionable research to make its case,” but that really isn’t the point. As Jonathan Chait notes in a piece titled, “You Get the Teachers You Pay For,” the paper doesn’t show that we pay teachers enough, it shows the skill level of teachers is commensurate with their pay level — an important distinction. “Pay teachers badly, and you’ll get a lot of bad teachers,” he writes.

According to a 2003 study from the Education Policy Analysis Archives, only 4.7 percent of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary (about $39,000, on average, nationwide), while 68% of those same students said they would consider teaching if it paid 50% more than the current occupations they were considering. Of those who do enter the field, 46% leave during the first five years.

The irony, of course, is that this report comes from two conservative think tanks. Conservative education folks often preach the need to infuse public education with the essence of the private sector. And you know how people in the corporate world attract highly qualified employees? They actively recruit smart people into the field, use head hunters to find only the very best applicants and pay the most-qualified employees large salaries to keep them happy and dedicated to their jobs.

Kayla Webley is a reporter at TIME. You can follow her on Twitter at @kaylawebley or on Facebook at