Are teachers underpaid? It depends.

There’s a meme going around that teachers are “underpaid;” you can read one manifestation of it in this Hacker News comment, but I’m sure you’ll run across lots of other examples if you read the news. Here’s the poster’s main point about teaching: “It’s way harder than you think, and unless you’re a tenured professor at a university, teachers make shit.” I’ve never taught high school, but I’m a grad student and teach freshmen, so I have some experience standing in front of people for long periods of time and trying to be both interesting and informative at the same time. A few observations:

1) The first time you teach a class, it’s incredibly hard and time consuming, but the difficulty drops like a logarithm to a relatively low plateau after you’ve done it a few times. This appears to be reflected in data. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the average teacher works slightly less than 40 hours per week. If you have better data, I’d like to see it. Note too that people getting teaching degrees at the graduate level get substantially lower GRE scores than those in almost all other disciplines. This will come up later.

2) At one point I thought about teaching high school English. Seattle Public Schools paid about $36K / yr with a Masters or $30K / yr without, and those numbers topped at around $70K and $55K after 30 years (IIRC, Bellevue Public School teachers made something like ~10K more). You can verify that as of July 2011 through the 2010 – 2011 salary schedule (it’s actually a little higher than I remembered, or raises have been substantial). That doesn’t count retirement; teaching is unusual because a lot of the benefits are backloaded in the form of retirement pay. One woman in my grad program taught English for 26 years in Michigan and took an early retirement offer; I think she gets 70% of her last year’s salary for life. Granted, those deals are going away because of the budget crisis, but a lot of the retirement stuff is still baked in.

3) You can multiply those numbers by 1.2 or so because teachers only have mandatory work for nine months of the year. People in most professions gets two weeks to a month off.

4) After two to three years, you effectively can’t be fired because of union rules (unless you sleep with a student and get caught in a flagrant manner, don’t show up, etc.). See this post for lots of citations on that, as well as a lot of the information that’s going into this comment. Not being able to be fired has value. Paul Graham figured this out a while ago, and wrote in an essay that “Economic statistics are misleading because they ignore the value of safe jobs. An easy job from which one can’t be fired is worth money; exchanging the two is one of the commonest forms of corruption. A sinecure is, in effect, an annuity.”

Note: there are major downsides to teaching. You have to like working with relatively undeveloped people (if you’re teaching high school) or children (if you’re teaching elementary school). In teaching, it’s very hard to make substantially more money if you really want to; whether you’re a good or bad teacher isn’t likely to make you more money. Still, you’ll hit the median household income neighborhood of $40,000 pretty quickly. My big impression is that teaching isn’t going to make you rich, but you’re also unlikely to ever be poor. To say that “teachers make shit” isn’t really true. It is to true to say that teachers have back-loaded compensation packages that tend to be high in benefits (e.g. good health care, retirement) and low in upfront salary.

Given this, we’re still left with the question of whether this is “too much” or “too little.” Some teachers are probably “underpaid” and some “overpaid,” depending on the demand for their field. To understand why, look at Payscale.com’s salary data for college majors. Humanities and social science majors are on the low end of the starting salary scale—not far from education majors, who start at $35K and have a mid-career median at $55K. This isn’t far from the pay at Seattle Public Schools, although Seattle probably has a higher cost of living than most places in the country. Salaries also vary by district; there’s been a lot of fury over, for example, New Jersey teacher salaries, since they’re relatively high, especially when one factors in health care. Arizona, by contrast, does not appear to suffer from that problem. The “underpaid” kind are experiencing major shortages—math, science, computer science, and so forth, which start in the vicinity of $50K and have a mid-career median in the $100K range. Those fields start close to where teachers can expect to be after 15 years. If you’re teaching computer science instead of taking a job that starts at $100K from Microsoft, Google, or Facebook, you’re underpaid. That’s why it’s so hard to districts to find really good math or science teachers.

There’s also the issue of student quality. In Seattle, there’s a strong north-south divide, with most of the southern schools being really tough and much more dangerous than the northern schools (the breakdown occurs along racial lines, as discussed in this 2006 Wall Street Journal article). If the pay is the same—and in Seattle, it is—most teachers will prefer the easier schools.

In the U.S., pay is in part proportionate to risk. Bill Gates isn’t just rich because he’s smart and hardworking; he also spent long hours in a company he created that could’ve easily netted him nothing. To some extent, teachers have collectively traded firing risk for lower salaries. Among other things, educational reformers are trying to sever this link, since getting great performance out of people who have no incentive for great performance save the goodness of their own hearts is problematic. Most people who experienced public schools—which is to say, most people—are probably aware of this on some level. There’s a movement afoot to make teachers more accountable, and I think it’s going to succeed. This should drive more money to great teachers, less to lousy ones, and more to people in technical fields. If teachers as a whole want more money, they better be ready to take more risk and be prepared to have their performance evaluated—like it is in virtually every other white-collar profession.

EDIT: A countervailing view that observes U.S. teachers don’t appear to be as productive as teachers from other countries, perhaps because of pay problems. Still, I wonder what alternate professional opportunities are like in other countries relative to the U.S.

15 responses

  1. What about heath benefits, retirement benefits, and pension? My teacher friends generally have ridiculously good benefits.

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  2. It comes down to whether they’re losing people or not. That’s the only measure that integrates everything about the career and the alternatives. Not sure who has data about flows into and out of the field, would go a long way toward answering the titular question.

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  3. Pay is not a matter of “worth”. It’s a matter of supply and demand. Public schools do not earn their money from customers and donors. Their budgets, including teacher salaries, are determined by politics, not demand. As such, it is impossible to determine whether public school teachers are under- or overpaid.

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  4. I couldn’t make it past your 2nd point. Some background, I have a PhD, have worked in the corporate sector since earning my PhD, am also an adjunct professor, am currently considering becoming a full-time professor, and I dated a middle-school teacher for several years.

    From day-to-day, teaching middle-school is much more difficult than teaching at the university level. Sorry, your experience as a teaching assistant doesn’t compare! To imply that tenured professors earn a lot while other instructors don’t shows how little you know about professor salaries, especially compared to comparable corporate salaries, or public school teacher salaries.

    Our public school teachers deserve more respect – period. Salary-wise my girlfriend didn’t earn a lot, but she got decent benefits and was forgiven her student loans after teaching for a set number of years. Unfortunately the workload and day-to-day support was lacking. In the short-term, my girlfriend, who was a very good teacher, was stressed right of the business. Worse than that, her students — the very generation who will be taking care of you and me in retirement — are the ones who will suffer long-term.

    Meanwhile, I’m debating taking a job that will pay me a very large salary, with great benefits, and even better retirement, but will require me to do work that doesn’t really help society at large (but will help a few fat cats get fatter) or pursuing a job as a professor that will allow me to help society but require me to take a significant pay cut, with less benefits and a barely acceptable retirement.

    In theory I’m a big believer in capitalism, but frankly, if we don’t seriously start taking care of today and tomorrow’s society as a demand (aka, the later half of “supply and demand”) the sorrows we face today will seem oh so trivial tomorrow.

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    • Your comment reminds me of this Atlantic article about Andreas Schleicher: “He likes to end his presentation with a slide that reads, in a continuously scrolling ticker, “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion … Without data, you are just another person with an opinion …” “

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    • Would you pay $25K* per year to send your child to your local K-12 public school? (This is the per pupil spending estimate for Los Angeles. Adjust your figure accordingly.) When it comes to “taking care of today and tomorrow’s society”, private schools and private charity are far better suited than public schools. How could it be otherwise? Government is not society. Government is force. Why would you expect to get a good product or service when you are forced to pay?

      * Schaeffer, Adam B. “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools.” March 10, 2010. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11432 (accessed July 11, 2011).

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  5. Teaching primary school is very different from teaching undergrads and the logarithmic reduction doesn’t really apply. Frankly, it’s about socialization as much or more than content. It’s grueling and one of the problems with tenure is that it doesn’t face the reality that teachers burn out.

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  6. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (attributed to Disraeli)

    Hey, Jake, apart from the occasional quibble, I seldom disagree with you on the big picture, but this is one occasion when I think you are way off. I realize it takes some cheek to say that, since you are actually in the teaching profession, and I am not, but let me tell you where I think you’ve gone wrong.

    “I’ve never taught high school, but I’m a grad student and teach freshmen, so I have some experience standing in front of people for long periods of time and trying to be both interesting and informative at the same time.”

    I agree with one of your commenters: there is no comparison between a teaching assistant job and full-time employment as a teacher, no more than an internship is the same as the real job for which one is being trained. The time commitment, the standards, the work-load, the accountability — all are totally different. How many sections of freshman comp do you teach? Two or three hours, three days a week? High school teachers typically teach five or six hours a day, five days a week. Full-time teachers, especially in public school, also don’t have the option to cancel a class meeting from time to time the way TAs will often do. I have a friend who teaches four different preps at a private high school day in, day out. He certainly works more than forty hours a week. It’s actually more like fifty or sixty, half of it outside the classroom. And he does not get an entire three months off either.

    “The first time you teach a class, it’s incredibly hard and time consuming, but the difficulty drops like a logarithm to a relatively low plateau after you’ve done it a few times.”

    It depends. If you are teaching the same prep semester after semester maybe, and if you have no imagination or desire to grow as a teacher. It’s true that some teachers get into a terrible rut and bring out the same yellowing transparencies year after year. But good teachers don’t do this. And if you end up with different preps each semester, you can’t do this.

    “According to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the average teacher works slightly less than 40 hours per week.”

    Be careful here. This extrapolation is not in my view a very reliable one. Just a few problems: (1) it’s based on survey data; therefore, it is not objective; (2) respondents were asked about the time they spent on their job “yesterday”, and from that one day, a weekly average was extrapolated; (3) the survey showed that the hours spent varied by age, with older teachers working more than forty hours a week, etc. This is a slippery slope. It sounds as if you are suggesting that because teachers work slightly less than forty hours a week, it’s okay to pay them tens of thousands of dollars a year less than people who work a few hours a week more. It sounds as if you are saying that because they work a little less than forty hours a week, the job isn’t a hard one.

    This falls into the trap of assuming that the mere number of hours should dictate the compensation. That would only be true if all jobs were of equal importance to society, which is certainly not the case. Look at air traffic controllers. They work a forty-hour work week, but they get a thirty minute break for every 90 to 120 minutes worked. That 25%–33% downtime, comparable to teachers’ summer vacations. But they make an average salary of $90,000–$160,000 a year, in recognition of the fact that the job is difficult. I’m not comparing teachers to air traffic controllers; I’m just trying to show you that an hour worked is not the same from profession to profession. Being “on stage” as a teacher is certainly more demanding than sitting in front of a computer pressing keys and moving bytes around, and yet I’m compensated double (or more than double) what most teachers make.

    “That doesn’t count retirement; teaching is unusual because a lot of the benefits are backloaded in the form of retirement pay. One woman in my grad program taught English for 26 years in Michigan and took an early retirement offer; I think she gets 70% of her last year’s salary for life. Granted, those deals are going away because of the budget crisis, but a lot of the retirement stuff is still baked in.”

    You acknowledged the budget crisis a bit reluctantly, it seems. But this is huge. It’s true that teaching has traditionally had very good benefits, pensions, etc. But then again, most US jobs used to have pensions — even blue-collar jobs like assembly line workers — and most no longer do. Teaching is one of the relatively few remaining, and those benefits, pensions, etc., are under siege, and in my view, will not last much longer. Even government, even military pensions, for god’s sake, are under attack these days. How long can they last when government at all levels is millions or even billions of dollars in the red?

    But take the pension for granted for a moment. Your example employee would have been earning, what, maybe $50K in retirement? Now consider the hotshots getting $100K/year jobs at Google and Facebook. They don’t have pensions, but who cares? We have to make a few assumptions about when they start earning, their average raise per year, how much they save, average returns, when they retire, etc., but consider … If these young turks put 15% into their 401(k) or a similar deferred compensation vehicle, based on a starting salary of 100$K, etc., etc., their retirement nest egg is likely to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.5M at age 65. Assuming they live another twenty years, that’s $275K a year. In fact, they’d have to live more than a hundred years longer before their retirement compensation would drop to the level of your example teacher! Clearly, teacher’s pensions are hardly the great back-end benefit they appear to be. And that’s so long as teachers still get pensions. Once they’re gone, teachers will have to take their chances with 401(k), seeded with a tiny fraction of the money available to computer programmers, engineers, doctors, and other highly compensated individuals.

    “You can multiply those numbers by 1.2 or so because teachers only have mandatory work for nine months of the year.”

    1.2 times shit is still shit. I think this is called the identity property of the arithmetic laws of shitty compensation. ;)

    “After two to three years, you effectively can’t be fired because of union rules (unless you sleep with a student and get caught in a flagrant manner, don’t show up, etc.).”

    Tell this to the tens of thousands of teachers who are being laid off, furloughed, and pressured into early retirement. You might not be able to be fired outright without cause — and that’s only so long as the unions survive (see also: the end of pensions, above) — but teachers can still lose their incomes. And they are. “The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated earlier this week [April 2010] that between 100,000 to 300,000 public education positions in the US are in danger. A study conducted by the American Association of School Administrators found that ninety percent of the nation’s school superintendents plan to cut jobs in the fall. This represents an increase of about 30 percent over the previous year.” (source)

    Tens of thousands at least, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of teachers are losing their jobs. Even if it’s a “layoff”, with the possibility of returning to work in a subsequent academic year, how many teachers will be able to wait for their jobs to come back — if they ever do?

    Let me close here with a couple final comments, as this has already gotten quite long. Are teachers underpaid? It depends what you mean by “underpaid”. If you mean paid less than other professions, then obviously, they are. If you mean paid less than they deserve, that’s a more subjective question, but I believe the answer is also yes. Do they make shit? Again, it depends how you define that, but in the main, I think so. They make more than the average Starbucks barista, I suppose, but that’s small compensation. One final example will serve to underscore the point. A friend of mine was hired as a visiting professor three or four years ago at a well-respected college in New England. For three preps, he was paid a fixed salary of $60,000 a year + benefits (and this is in a very expensive part of the country). When it came time to renew his contract, he was informed that the job was being converted to an adjunct position. For the same three preps, he was offered $5,000 per class, that is, $30,000 a year and no benefits. This was a more than 50% pay cut for the same work, amounting roughly to minimum wage — or less. He declined the job, and I’m sure they filled it with some desperate, newly minted PhD. And this is happening all over the country. That is, where the jobs aren’t being eliminated outright.

    So, yes, I think teachers basically make shit. When they are lucky enough even to get that.

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    • I have a friend who teaches four different preps at a private high school day in, day out. He certainly works more than forty hours a week. It’s actually more like fifty or sixty, half of it outside the classroom. And he does not get an entire three months off either.

      I’d guess your friend is anomalous, albeit it in a good way, or a way that’s good for his students. But I haven’t seen any data indicating this is normal. If the BLS data is truly random—i.e. they didn’t systematically call on Mondays, or Saturdays, or whatever, then it should be pretty good. If you have other data, I’d love to see it. AFAIK, BLS data is the gold standard on occupation time data. As for this: “It sounds as if you are suggesting that because teachers work slightly less than forty hours a week, it’s okay to pay them tens of thousands of dollars a year less than people who work a few hours a week more.” This is to me an argument for paying teachers based on factors other than merely years of experience and degree.

      Now consider the hotshots getting $100K/year jobs at Google and Facebook. They don’t have pensions, but who cares?

      It does seem wise to me to offer more compensation up front and to offer different compensation levels to different teachers; that P.E. teachers are making the same amount as computer science teachers in most districts is part of the problem. Still, I don’t see an obvious path in the current system for getting from current payment methods to future ones.

      Are teachers underpaid? It depends what you mean by “underpaid”. If you mean paid less than other professions, then obviously, they are.

      According to Payscale.com’s salary data, this doesn’t appear to be the case except in the sciences.

      I would ask this: what would be your ideal salary schedule for teachers? How would you determine who gets paid what? The answer might be too long for a blog comment, but without specifics, arguing “too much” or “too little” seems like arguing about the number of angels who can fit on the head of a pin.

      Also, I posted this in another comment with too much snark, but it’s nonetheless true: I like what this Atlantic article says about Andreas Schleicher: “He likes to end his presentation with a slide that reads, in a continuously scrolling ticker, ‘Without data, you are just another person with an opinion … Without data, you are just another person with an opinion …’ “

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  7. “Without data, you are just another person with an opinion”

    The question isn’t whether you have data and I don’t (which is not true anyway). Rather, I think you’re misinterpreting the data you do have.

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  8. As my g/f is a teacher, albeit in the UK and I work in a University in the same country I can comment with relevant experience although from an angle. In University if you perform well as a teacher of material but poorly in research you are nothing. There is a real bias, one recently retired Prof taught with someone else’s notes, which he did not understand and did not update for Years – despite complaints occurring yearly, he was a highly regarded professor in a research sense. At best there is a summer note update occurring and some gruelling marking schedules 2 or 3 times a year. The hard work is in research and the hours spent are at worst variable – you do get the Workaholics but other not so much.

    On the flip side My g/f works 10 to 12 hours a day and every weekend she does less hours but not always by much. In the UK that is with an education equivalent roughly to a masters. Oh and the holidays are filled with prep, in that time she works about 3 hours a day apart for perhaps two weeks. No contest, the teachers are underpaid when the hours are considered. For the record she has taught for a few years and has taught the same curriculum in that time the same age group for several years. She is working harder this year than last especially with the drive to improve results and a wider margin of ability in her class – classes are age based rather than ability based, unlike I believe the US.

    Teachers are underpaid.

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  9. Pingback: Links: Peter Norvig, Coders at Work, Tucson tedium, bookselling, teachers, Tolkien « The Story's Story

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