Are teachers underpaid? | reTHINK TANK

Are teachers underpaid? | reTHINK TANK

August 27, 2019 17 By Kody Olson


We hear all the time that public school
teachers are severely underpaid. It’s a claim often made during teacher pay
disputes, and not to mention a hot topic during presidential campaigns. But where
exactly do these claims come from? Are public school teachers truly underpaid? Each year, the Economic Policy Institute
produces annual reports on public school teacher pay. Their report claims that in 2018,
teachers received salaries 21% below those of comparably-educated and
experienced workers in the private sector. This is the source that the media
likes to use when covering teacher pay disputes. But there’s a problem with this
research. If we use EPI’s same data and statistical techniques to figure out
what other professions are paid, we would find that firefighters are overpaid by
25%, while massage therapists are underpaid by 10%. Or that air traffic
controllers are overpaid by 58%, and telemarketers are underpaid by 26%. Now,
this doesn’t make any sense! So why are we getting these results? Well,
EPI’s researchers compare teacher salaries to private sector workers with
the same age and education. Now, this sounds reasonable, but this assumes that
education is interchangeable: that a bachelor’s degree in education has the
same market value as a bachelor’s in engineering, and a master’s in education
obtained online is worth the same as an MBA from a top college. If we go by this
standard, public school teachers are more educated than 95 percent of the
workforce — more than atmospheric scientists, software developers, and
nearly all fields of engineering. So if teachers aren’t paid the same as these
occupations, the EPI claims they must be underpaid. But we know that not all students,
colleges, and degrees are worth the same. In the real world, employees are paid not
only for the number of years they sat in a classroom, but according to the supply of
and demand for the skills they developed there, skills that obviously vary across
occupations. Nurses, for instance, might not have as many years of formal
education as teachers, but nursing demands both technical knowledge and
enormous attention to detail. A simple mistake can risk a patient’s life!
You can’t conclude that nurses are overpaid simply because they earn more
than typical college graduates. The real problem isn’t that teachers on average are
underpaid. The average teacher salary is over $60,000 for roughly ten months of
work, and teacher benefits — especially pensions — are over twice as generous as
the average private-sector job. The real problem here is that the very best
teachers are underpaid. And the worst teachers aren’t nearly protected from
being fired — they’re paid the same as the best teachers! No other professional
occupation works this way. Whether it be engineers, architects, or software
developers, the best professionals get raises and promotions, while those who
can’t perform are encouraged to look elsewhere. If we start to treat teachers
as professionals, we will reward the best teachers for their invaluable
efforts, and in turn generate a better education for future generations. To learn more about teacher pay, check out the link to my research in the
description below. Also, let us know what other topics you’d like a AEI scholars
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