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Teachers & Teaching        < Previous        Next >


Teacher Pay


Q. I wish we could pay teachers as much as we pay doctors, lawyers, CPAs and engineers. What they do for society is just as important.


Probably so. But most salaries are set by supply and demand. It's that simple. There are a lot more people trained as teachers (3.2 million) than trained in those other professions. Teachers today make about the average for four-year college graduates in all fields of endeavor.


Another very important factor is the length of time in the workday, and the work year. Teachers work less than other college graduates in other fields that make more than they do, but it makes sense. Teachers work under a union contract that normally defines the teacher's work day at around seven hours or less. Teachers themselves report being in school buildings 38 hours a week, on average. That's far, far fewer hours than an accountant works during tax season, for example. Furthermore, a teacher's work year comes to 190 working days, on average, with summers off and so forth. That compares to about 240 days for a lawyer or office manager with two weeks' vacation and 10 holidays and paid days off.


Still another factor is that teachers tend to start at low starting salaries, but quickly hike up to a good median pay. Other professions may tend to start their new employees off at a higher starting pay, but the "snap" - the increase to the median pay - takes a lot longer. Therefore, when you see comparisons of teacher salaries to the salaries of others in careers that require four years of college, see if the comparison is of starting salaries, or median salaries. Comparisons of median salaries between teachers and other professionals find that teachers do indeed make about 10% less, on average, than those other professionals, BUT since they work about 30% fewer hours, they actually make out well, hour-for-hour.


There's yet another factor regarding the latter: in teaching, everybody makes fairly close to everybody else, even though of course, veterans make more than beginners. However, veterans don't make THAT much more than beginners. But in the private sector, especially in fields such as sales and marketing, or engineering, there are a few individuals who make WHOPPING big salaries - salaries in the millions - and those few individuals raise the entire median a lot. Teaching, in contrast, doesn't have those "superstars" to lift their average - and of course, once again, that's compliments of the union and collective bargaining that's holding teacher pay back.


You also have to consider the dollar value of the fringe benefits and retirement packages for teachers vs. the other professionals. Most people would have to say that teachers come out the winners in those measurements.


If teacher pay seems low in your state compared to other states, you have to look at the average salaries for four-year college graduates in both states. It is likely that overall, salaries in your state are lower than in other states because you have a lower cost of living, have more rural areas where "comparables" are lower because there are fewer jobs for college graduates available, and so forth.


In education, a higher salary does not signify the importance of the job. Look at homeschooling parents: they work for free, and yet their children would certainly say that the work that they do is important.


Teaching salaries also do not correlate to how much education you have had as a teacher. As many homeschooling parents show, you don't even need a bachelor's degree in any college area to function as a great teacher, much less be an education major and a certified teacher. Relatively few homeschooling parents are certified teachers, but the average test scores of homeschooling students is much better than the average test scores of students who have certified teachers. Many of the professors at colleges and universities who get the highest ratings as teachers from their students are not educators at all, but are "adjuncts" with expertise in various subjects who find that they are able to teach without going back to teachers' college or gaining teaching certification from the state.


Salaries also reflect intensity of training. The formal training of those other disciplines in medicine, law, accounting and engineering, for example, extend for years past college, and so they deserve higher compensation to match.


The biggest influence of all on teacher pay, however, is that there is no free market for how much teachers can make, in public education. The unions control pay with the collective bargaining process. Their system is simple: basically, the longer you've been teaching, the more you make. You can make a little more with a master's degree and by coaching or sponsoring a school activity, but even if you are such a great teacher your pupils come to you at the bottom of the scale at the start of the year, and finish ready for Phi Beta Kappa, you don't get paid extra for being extra good.


Pundits call union seniority rights, tenure and the single salary scale "the three pillars of mediocrity" for teacher pay. Before collective bargaining and unionism seized control of teacher salaries in the 1960s, teachers made about the same as others similarly situated, only they worked for nine months of the year. To the extent a gap has emerged, don't blame school boards or the public: blame the unions.


But common sense is making inroads. Mentoring pay is being allowed to keep master teachers in the classroom, not reluctantly seeking desk jobs to get more pay.


Districts in Denver, Cincinnati and Delaware are moving to a performance-based merit pay system, though some teachers in California have refused bonuses coming to them because their students improved on standardized tests; they say bonus systems cause jealousy and unhealthy competition.


Further, there's a lot of interest in "differential" pay for teachers willing to work in disadvantaged areas, or with hard-to-find specialties such as math, science, special education and foreign language.


And districts are experimenting with salary scales for teachers, not based on longevity, but labeled the same as student scores on standardized tests: "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."


Homework: Check out teacher pay data by state in the annual publication Quality Counts on



By Susan Darst Williams Teachers 09 2008




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