Economics, U.S. Economy

Public school teachers: Desperately underpaid?

Today, my co-author Jason Richwine and I will be releasing a new study on public school teacher pay and holding an event at AEI. It’s interesting stuff that’s worth hearing about in person, but here’s the short story.

Salaries: Public school teachers receive lower salaries than similarly educated private sector workers; this leads many to conclude, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan did, that teachers are “desperately underpaid.” But these credentials-based comparisons are dicey when a single occupation (teacher) generally holds a single type of degree (bachelors or masters in education). Research we cite shows that education is, to put things bluntly, among the easiest college majors—teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores but earn far higher GPAs than people majoring in history, chemistry, or other subjects. That skews the numbers. Therefore, we compare salaries while controlling for scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, an objective measure of cognitive ability. And when we do, the supposed teacher salary gap disappears.

Vacation time: Bureau of Labor Statistics benefits data shows that teachers have only 60 percent as much vacation time as private sector workers. Huh? It turns out that BLS bases its teacher figures on a 185-day work year, which means that BLS counts only time off during the school year while ignoring summer and holiday vacations. We adjust teachers’ time off to make it comparable to private sector workers.

Retirement benefits: A typical teacher will receive pension and retiree health benefits several times larger than what she would likely receive in a private sector job. But this difference isn’t reflected in BLS benefits data, for two reasons. First, BLS excludes retiree health coverage, and second, public sector pensions use aggressive accounting rules that understate the true cost of benefits. By accessing state data on retiree health plans and adjusting pension figures to account for different accounting rules, we arrive at a more accurate figure.

Job security: Public school teachers have an unemployment rate around half that of private school teachers or a range of 16 comparable private sector occupations such as architects, news reporters, and editors. Job security insures against income loss during unemployment and becomes more valuable when the job you have—such as public school teaching—pays a premium in terms of combined salaries and benefits. We calculate that job security is worth about an extra 9 percent of pay.

Summing up: Teacher salaries are about comparable to the private sector, but teachers’ benefits are roughly twice as generous and their job security is significantly greater. Altogether, we estimate that public school teachers receive total compensation roughly 50 percent higher than they would likely receive in private sector jobs.

31 thoughts on “Public school teachers: Desperately underpaid?

  1. Total nonsense…the most worthless major is finance….it destroys countries and puts them back int the middle ages….Corzine….what degree did he have??? The logic behind this study is totally propaganda.

  2. This study makes an apple to apple comparison. But, it does not measure the time spent out of school by teachers. The lesson plan preparation, grading, parent calls, extra duties are due to inefficient and undisciplined schools.
    Many school systems do not treat teachers as professionals and act as if a teacher’s job is to complete paperwork, turn in lesson plans and be babysitters.
    Many great teachers leave because the systems are incompatible with actual teaching and student learning. The school system leaders do not demand: parental responsibility, high student expectation, discipline.
    Many systems pay for dissatisfaction, political grandstanding and are part of a unionized labor force which sees the job as child warehousing not outcome.

    • You (and all the other posters) act as if every one in the private sector works 9-5. At my company, engineers are woken at 1 in the morning to deal with network outages. Software developers work through weekends in preparation for software launches and managers are on calls throughout the night with teams in India and China.

  3. @Hondo,

    The vast majority of people in finance do not have finance degrees. In fact, I would bet that the most prevalent degree is Liberal Arts.

    • Actually, the Financial sector has made huge inroads into recruitment of techies. I know many, many friends coming out of school with advanced computer science degrees who went into the finance industry.

      The big banks are making mad bank by throwing billions into computer modeling and automated trading.

  4. The answer to all this is “if you want the same thing, you need unions as powerful as the teachers unions.”

    My rebuttal is that almost no private business could afford benefits like that and stay in business.

    • Are you seriously saying that private business owners such as in the industries everyone has been speaking of (accounting, banking, engineering, etc) can’t afford to pay people a fairer wage because they are too poor with their private jets and million dollar bonuses? You have been drinking the cool aid for way too long. That’s exactly the kind of brainwashing that keeps you in the private business you are currently employed in, working for someone who uses you for their profit.

      If you people want to get all the “benefits” teachers get why don’t you apply to become one? After if we can do it with our “below-average SAT scores” then surely the bright private sector employees can easily manage.

      Or even better, take all your anger towards teachers and use it proactively by forming your own union at your current business. Why hate teachers when really you should be focusing your aggression on your employer who has chosen to give you the salary, benefits, and long hours that you unfortunately experience?

      By the way, I am a public school teacher and I start the school year August 1 and end July 1. The four weeks we get off is spent taking courses and recuperating from the year spent teaching, coaching, and advising 130 adolescents for 10 hours a day. Rarely do school days last from 8-3. Even if classes start at 8 in some schools (which is late) all teachers still have to be at school at least 30 minutes before. And most teachers work clubs, after school homework and study groups, and have grade team meetings.

      How can you judge a profession based on the actions of a few teachers in each school when the vast majority stay far beyond their “union requirements” and do work that is far more stressful then desk jobs. Imagine giving 4 different hour long presentations EVERY SINGLE DAY to 130 moody teenagers and then being expected to make those presentations so engaging that all of those 130 students pass the state tests mandated for graduation.

      Please people- spend a day shadowing a public school teacher in New York City before you continue to make all of these false accusations and nasty judgments about our work.

  5. First of all, teachers are only paid for the 185 days they work, AND almost every teacher I know works during the summer as well – without pay. This work includes preparing materials, reviewing what worked & what didn’t work in order to improve, taking classes for professional development (paid for out of their own pocket), reading up on best practices to be a more effective teacher, and more. Teachers do more work during their “vacation” than most other public sector positions. During Thanksgiving and Winter Break (which teachers are not paid for because those days are not included in the 185 work year) teachers are grading papers and creating lesson plans. During weekends teachers are grading papers, creating lesson plans, and completing other paperwork for state accountability purposes. Most teachers also work longer hours than what they are paid, both in the classroom and at home. Teacher benefits are not any greater than any other position except for those who do not opt to pay in to a retirement plan. Our health benefits are certainly not any better when I compare them to every other person I know working in the public sector.

    Secondly, job security? Hah! You must be living back in the 80′s and 90′s. These days there is no such thing as job security. The finance people you advocate wasted the money thrown at them to save our economy which led to states cutting dollars to schools. Where did these cuts hit? The teachers and para-professionals are the ones who suffered. You talk about job security, but you have no clue. Tell the teacher who worked for 20 years in a district and was let go simply because her contract was up at the end of the year. Tell that story to the teachers who have poured their life into the classroom who are now at home desperately seeking a job.

    Lastly, you also mention teachers only having one degree. While many new teachers do only have one degree, this is because they have not been in the profession long. Many teachers have multiple degrees and certifications which require additional classes (paid for out of the teacher’s own pocket) and state tests (also paid for out of the teacher’s own pocket). Teachers don’t just go to school for four years. Every certified teacher must take continuing education courses every year in order to keep their certification current. This is similar to other professions, but according to you, it is less worthy than other public sector professions.

    I will believe the report you are releasing as soon as you earn your teaching degree, get a classroom teaching position, keep it for at least three years, maintain your certification in the first five years, and manage to retain your sanity. 3 in 5 people who try teaching can’t make it longer than a year. Can you? It sounds easy to most people – work 8 to 3, grade a few papers, and get three months off in the summer. For those who are under the impression that this is the life of a teacher – you are living a delusion.

    • This reply seems to rely heavily on your anecdotal evidence and very little on hard data.

      On the “Hours Worked” side, you insist that teachers work harder than people in the private sector. Why is that? Do you think that salaried people in the private sector don’t also work off hours? What data do you have that says teachers are working more (or even comparable) hours compared with others?

      Your complaint about job security is strange to me. Could you post numbers on what percent of teachers are unemployed vs the percentage of private workers? Because I’m pretty sure that- while teachers may be impacted by the poor economy- they are not feeling it half as bad as similar people in the private sector. I certainly know that in California, while our unemployment rate shot up to 10% through last year (when I finally bugged out) not a single state employee had been laid off. But if you have data that says otherwise, I would be interested in seeing it.

      The complaint about degrees seems to be a red herring. Whether or not Teachers have to perform continuing education, when the authors compared their actual cognitive ability vs the rest of the country, they found no gap in compensation. This is important because one should not be entitled to greater pay just because they went to school. They should get more pay based on the value they contribute to whomever is paying. A better measure of the value they produce is a measure of their abilities, not some certification. And the data indicate that Teachers are being compensated appropriately.

      • I worked in the private industry for 18 years before working as a teacher for the last 8. I find fallacious arguments from both sides when compensation is discussed.

        Cons of teaching? In many ways I work much harder than I used to in the private sector and make much less pay. As a teacher, you’re always “on” all day. There is no flex time to take care of personal business during the day. There are no 2 hour lunches in December to take care of Christmas shopping. I bring work home almost every night and weekend. I liken it to developing and delivering 3 new presentations every day (I teach 3 different levels of classes), whereas in my old work there was plenty of time to prepare a single presentation. Never mind the many hats you must wear during the course of each day. There are no refined offices, desks, or cafeterias, unless you count frozen pizza & fries as such.

        Pros of teaching? Let’s face it. Where else can I get two months off each summer? My benefits are much better than I got in the private sector. I now get a pension which didn’t exist in my old job. I am no longer “on call” nights and weekends anytime there is an urgent problem, none of which I ever got paid for as a salaried worker. I work with people who enjoy what they do. The idea that teachers are unique in having to continue their education is silly – I took many more, and much harder & relevant classes, in my previous job to keep up with technology and changes. The job security is not even comparable. My old company used to constantly shed the bottom 5-10 percent reviewed workers. A fired teacher with tenure is almost non-existent.

        Bottom line? Although I make much less money, I enjoy teaching, working hard, interacting with students, seeing results on many levels, and knowing that my work matters. It is work I choose to do for the compensation I get. When the overall compensation becomes truly too little, then people can, and will, choose another occupation if the grass is indeed greener on the other side.

    • The kids are in school for 185 days which is 9.25 months. Then throw in the “teacher work days” when kids aren’t in school but the teachers are and the teachers are there for at least 10 months. “But who gets 2 months vacation every year?”, you ask. Fair enough. Let’s do away with all the mandated three day weekend/Monday “Holidays”. That’s ten days that you will be at work and so will the teachers. Then let’s keep the kids in school for the 2 week Christmas Holidays so the teachers will be there too. Don’t forget Thanksgiving weekend. Your kid will be in school the Friday after Thanksgiving along with the teachers. Now we’ve added 20 to 21 days or three weeks. So we’re up to 10 and ¾ months work for teachers. Six weeks vacation is still very good if not exceptional so let’s keep the kids in school all summer and give the teachers two weeks vacation a year. Now everyone in your school jurisdiction will be on vacation for the same two weeks every year because you can’t stagger the kids’ vacation time without harming their learning progress. Voila! Problem solved. Teachers now work as much as ‘everyone else’. I know every parent will not mind making these changes.

  6. Are you kidding me? The reason why the summer and holidays are not taken into consideration, in addition to the fact that most teachers find other work or training during those times, the actual hours they spend working during those “185 Days” is at least equivalent to the hours that it takes an average private sector an entire year to accumulate. Teachers are ridiculously overworked, and it is reprehensible that articles like this seek to give them even less recognition for the exceedingly important work they do. The last time class size appears to have been measured by the government was in 2007, and even at that point the average number was 23 students. That was almost 5 years ago, and at least in my region the number of students is now much closer to the low 30s rather than the low 20s. Teachers are expected to arrive at school early, stay late for meetings or extracurricular activities, and still somehow find time to grade papers. Even if it’s 30 kids in a single class, at the middle and high school levels that means 30 students over as many as 8 classes. Teachers are worked beyond any sensible standard.

    • Private sector employees often work 60+ hour weeks – especially in IT and engineering. Extra education in the form of certifications is always demanded and there is generally no compensation for travel or training time. Highly experienced specialists with advanced degrees seldom achieve compensation packages much in excess of what is specified herein for average teachers – unless, of course, they work for the government. In many states teachers’ gross pay exceeds that of most technical professionals – and that is before taking into account the value of benefits. And all those private sector specialists are employed at-risk, meaning they compete for their jobs every day. This includes technical educators, who (unlike many education-based teaching positions) are required to have demonstrated competence in the subject matter being taught.

  7. When people discuss teacher pay, teacher reforms, etc. there are always examples of teachers working only 180 days a year and receiving at least an average salary, along with excellent benefits and (once tenured) incredible job security.

    There are also examples of teachers getting extra degrees and credentials, working from home, buying supplies, etc.

    Both sets of examples are true. Unfortunately, each of the two composite teachers are paid roughly the same amount and have approximately the same job security. Paying more for teachers is pointless (except for furthering budget problems) as long as a majority of education dollars go to administration and other non-classroom functions, tenure kicks in very early, there is no merit pay, etc. The system is the problem, not the average rate of pay. Good teachers should make a lot more money, bad teachers should lose their job. Increasing the compensation equally would be a huge mistake.

    If we have a problem with the top 1% doing so much better than the average American, we need to start by making sure the average American gets a quality education so he/she can grow up to compete in the worldwide marketplace.

  8. If I understand the ‘apple’ correctly you are saying that the average teacher pay nationally is a little over $110,000/yr. WOW! Does your study break out salaries per state and locality? My wife has been teaching 34 years and is making the market rate pay- which is an exactly average income for our geographic area. And ‘group’ health insurance costs us $7,200/yr. Her retirement isn’t anything to write home about. It is a subsistence retirement level when you calculate costs vs income. We need to move and cash in. My state isn’t even in the top ten pay wise for teachers nationally the last time I checked about 3 years ago. As for public-private sector comparison, accountants with a masters in accounting were making DOUBLE my wife’s salary [she holds a masters in reading from a nationally renowned university- but it's only in education, right?]. That of course was before the Bush/Obama recession. Are education majors’ IQ’s and test scores only half of those for accountants, thus accountants get double during normal times? Just curious.

    As for teacher-pupil ratio, Andrew W is pretty accurate. Those average ratios included the ‘library’ teacher and the ‘IT’ teacher and the PE teacher and I swear sometimes I think they include the custodial staff just to rig the ratio downward [like Obama's unemployment stats]. 25-30 kids sounds about right. I’d love to see the typical conservative public school critic last even a month as a teacher. You have no idea how hard it is dealing with 30 undisciplined, distinct little personalities and teaching them. Also they bring their families pathologies to the classroom with them. And brothers and sisters, it ain’t pretty. Future felons, psychopaths, neurotics, hyperactive kids wired on caffeine, sugar and too little sleep. You name it, and they are in the pulik skrool classroom. In the private sector you can fire the ones who are FUBAR or demote them or give them an office in the basement and no responsibility. Try getting Mr. and Mrs. Jones to let you expel their future serial murderer kid. Not happening. I’ve seen enough via my wife to know it isn’t as simple as I used to think, and too many conservatives think.

    There are serious issues with public schools and especially in some states- like WI- serious changes need to be made. Perhaps teachers are overpaid, or not underpaid. I’m not certain, but before any study purports to determine that, factors relating to the number of low IQ’s, and psycho-pathologies should be factored in also. Besides the sub standard IQ and motivationally challenged teachers, the parents/families are equally at fault/responsible. You can’t teach a kid everything to be an SAT star in the time alloted, even if school werer year round. Don’t think that I am reflexively defending public education. I’m not. But studies such as this one are a little too simplistic based on seeing what my wife has dealt with for 34 years and knowing the hours she has always put in and what she has been paid.

    Now, what is the location where an average teacher is making $110K per. With my wife’s multiple degrees, 34 years of experience and tenure, she should draw $150K easy on the salary scale.

  9. You sound very uneducated when you say “teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores but earn far higher GPAs than people majoring in history, chemistry, or other subjects”

    For secondary educators (grades 6 – 12), teachers major in history and minor in education, major in chemistry and minor in education, major in Physics and minor in education etc. in order to teach their subject area.

    A good teacher spends countless hours during the week and on weekends developing lessons that will motivate the students who do not want to be there and/or appreciate what you are doing for them (but that’s a whole different discussion).

    Then again the author got his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a masters of Philosophy in Social and Political Theory and has the audacity to knock a degree in Education.

    • Say, wasn’t it just yesterday that Rush was mocking degrees in philosophy and social and political science? Yes it was. Good point!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. The biggest reason teachers are underpaid is illustrated through your article…they’re mostly women. You state “A typical teacher will receive pension and retiree health benefits several times larger than what she… ” Why is it she? What about all the men who teach? Women makeup the majority of teachers and “don’t need big salaries” because they have husbands…sickening how we are viewed!

  11. Okay, maybe I need this explained like I’m a 5th grader. We keep hearing how lesson plans take so much planning and time if you teach a certain year of classes let’s say 8th grade science. You develop a lesson plan through your first year. How much can change the next year? I can understand having to develop something new, but if you’re teaching the same subject each year why’s it so tough? The easiest part of my job is my monthly reporting, the format is there, the source data is known. I’ll spend more time today/tonight working on an adhoc report for my bosses boss, going back three years than the five monthly reports I generate each month. Can’t wait for this answer. Thanks!

    • Well, first, you don’t simply reuse lesson plans each year. While you may not start from scratch, both the students and the curriculum undergo changes each year. Second, a lesson plan isn’t like a report. It is a plan for teaching real people with varying differences using materials that constantly need updating. In addition to lesson planning, there are many other tasks that teachers do, from paperwork for various interventions to classroom management issues, professional development, and much much more. The tone in your post hints that any moron could teach. Unfortunately, until a person had tried it, and found how challenging it is to be a highly-effective and caring teacher, that person can’t begin to understand what it is like. Until you have been a teacher or at least substituted, please refrain from such open disdain.

    • I teach 3 different lessons per day at the secondary level. (That’s 15 different lessons per week). I am on my 4th curriculum in the 11 years I have worked there. Next year I will have a new curriculum with the common core standards in place. I prep each year and then it continuously changes.

  12. In our local high school the teachers spend 3 hours(2 -1.5 hr classes) in front of a class on each day. the rest of the 7.5 hr day is for class prep. The pay for a 20 yr teacher is about 15% less than my wife who has worked over 30 yrs in engineering, the last 10 as a department manager. The teachers also have health care coverage that costs little out of pocket, while we pay the first $3000 before the coverage kicks in. Also the teachers can retire at 55 yrs old and 30 yrs teaching with a pension that pays 80% of the highest years salary. Compare that to us taxpayers who at our age cannot collect social security until we are 67 yrs old. Just as a side note, the teachers in our district were given 2.5 paid days off( Not using personal or vacation days) last week to attend the annual state teachers union convention even though the union canceled the convention last April.

    • Where do you live? Do you really believe that teachers only teach part-time but get paid for full-time labor? I have never in my 17 years in education heard of such a luxurious position. And teachers cannot collect social security benefits until age 67 either, just like the rest of the population. What they are receiving at 55 (most teachers work beyond this age) is their pension that they have contributed to their entire career. And you’re saying that all the teachers in your district were given 2.5 days off to attend the state teachers’ union convention that didn’t even take place. That’s ludicrous. I think you should check on your facts before you post half-truths on the internet.

  13. I am a teacher of special needs children is a state that has an unemployment rate of 10.5% and with all the cuts, I am thankful for a position at this point. My salary is determined by state legislature which is filled with people who haven’t been in a classroom since they left it. I have not had a raise for 4 years and am now required to pay part of my health insurance. I am also buying insurance to cover the cost of deductables and copays because these just keep going up. I have been in education for 38 years and expect to be able to retire when I have taught for 41 years. During my ‘vacation’ in the summer, I attend professional development to keep up with the ever changing curriculum requirements. I do not have the luxury of chosing when to take my vacation, it is planned for me. We have had people who have left the engineering field to teach and couldn’t make it because there was so much pressure. I am usually at school by 6:30 A.M. and try to leave by 5:00 every day. My husband was a teacher as well, but following a major stroke is now on disability. Long term disability is 60% of his salary.

  14. Teachers in Toronto Canada make $100 000 in basic salary before benefits and pension are considered. This is quite fair. The two dollars are at rough parity these days.

    Teachers need to be paid the same as engineers, pharmacists and dentists who have the same level of education. Get with it.

    • Our point (shown in detail in the paper, which I recommend you read) is that teachers don’t have the same level — or at least quality — of education as engineers, pharmacists and dentists. If they don’t, then there’s no reason they should be paid like these professions.

      Now, would it be worth the money to pay more to get better teachers? Maybe. But simply paying more to the teachers we have simply increases the overpayment.

  15. This is a terrible commentary article. My wife is a teacher and she works twice as much as me on a daily basis. The article failed to address the extra time teachers spend outside of classroom and extra work such as after school tutoring with little or no pay. It is sad to see that we do not value our educators in this great nation as others in the third world. It is a shame, these researchers need to spend more time in an actual school and in the field rather than just gathering data.

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