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’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.

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