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Are Teachers Overpaid? By Some Standards, Yes November 13, 2011

Posted by Dindy in Schools, Uncategorized.
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A new study by conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, has concluded that public school teachers are overpaid compared to their counterparts with similar qualifications in the private sector. This is not a popular stance to take, of course, especially during this particular year when so many states have decided that one way to lower their expenses is to cut teaching jobs.

This happens to be a question that I can speak to somewhat knowledgeably since not only did I used to be a teacher, but I am a Human Resource wonk, with expertise in Compensation. In addition, I have spent most of my professional life working either in the public sector or the non-profit sector, both of which tend to have lower pay than the private sector.

So let’s look at the question of whether teachers are overpaid compared to comparable workers. When looking to see if different jobs are paid on an equitable basis, one of the things we so-called experts do is look at the level of education and experience required for the job. It is possible to walk into a teaching job with no experience, straight out of college. As long as one has a Bachelor’s Degree, one can teach.

Starting teachers in Texas make $40,000 to $50,000 a year, or even more, which isn’t bad for someone fresh out of college with no experience. It’s even better if you consider that this is for ten months of work. If you converted this to a full year salary for 12 months of work, you get $48,000, which, again, is pretty good for someone fresh out of college.

Teachers, quite rightly point to the fact that their job is not an 8 to 5  job, that they spend countless hours after school and on weekends grading papers and preparing lessons, that the importance of their job should be considered when making decisions about pay, and that theirs is one of the hardest jobs in the world (well, I might actually quibble with that last one because I have been a teacher and I can tell you that there are jobs that are MUCH more difficult). They will also tell you that they spend their summers working on their Masters degree so they can move into a higher level of pay and improve their level of knowledge, so it’s not as though they are lounging around the pool all summer sipping mint juleps. (Actually, when I was a teacher, I did spend my summers lounging around the pool and playing with my kids. I did not sip mint juleps, however.)

Nevertheless, let’s stipulate that teachers have  hard jobs and important jobs, so we can look at some other public sector employees. For instance, child protective workers. Child Protective workers are a lot like teachers in some ways. You can walk into a Child Protective Services job with a 4-year degree and no experience. The jobs are certainly important, and are difficult and often dangerous. Social workers often go into some of the worst neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night and talk to hostile, possibly violent people, to determine whether the conditions are severe enough to warrant removing a child from the home. Child Protective Service workers work 12 months of the year and frequently have shifts in the evenings or weekends. They are often on call 24 hours a day. If they want to get a Master’s Degree, they do so during their off hours, and once they attain that degree, it won’t necessarily improve their pay, unless they move to a higher level position.

For their trouble, entry-level Child Protective Services workers in Texas are paid about $26,000 to $30,000 a year. It takes them about ten years to get up to $40,000. If you compare hourly rates, beginning teachers in Texas make about $23.08 per hour, compared to $12.50 an hour for Child Protective Service workers.

Librarians are another public sector employee. The average starting salary for an entry-level Librarian in Texas is $40,000, which is comparable to our starting salary for teachers. However, librarians are required to have Masters level degrees. They work 12 months of the year and often work evenings and weekends. Many of them are not able to have two days off in a row on a regular basis because of scheduling issues at their work place. As someone who practically lived in my hometown library when I was growing up, I can attest to the importance of what they do.

So if we compare the hourly rate of a librarian to that of a teacher, the librarian makes $19.23 per hour, compared to $23.08 for teachers. Ironically, many librarians pick up their teaching certificates along the way so they can work as a  school librarian and make more money than their counterparts in the public libraries, while at the same time enjoying better hours and vacation benefits.

I’m not going to compare the salaries of teachers with those of private sector jobs because I think it is apples and oranges. It’s like comparing the pay rate of a police officer to a security guard. It just isn’t a valid comparison. However, it seems pretty clear that when it comes to public sector salaries, at least, teachers don’t do too badly when compared to other pubic sector jobs.

But that is just entry-level salaries. There is a problem with teacher salaries, but it’s not what people think it is. The starting salary for a teacher is actually pretty good, but if you take a look at teachers with ten or more years of experience in the classroom, their salary is not much higher than the starting salary. In Texas, teacher pay caps out at about $60,000 a year. Whereas most people who start a job after college and stay in the same career field can expect to see their pay rate climb as they move into higher level positions, teachers see their pay rate flatten.

The problem is that their job remains pretty much the same no matter how many years of experience they have. After the first three or four years, a teacher with five years of experience is doing pretty much the same job as a teacher with ten years of experience, who, in turn, is doing the same job as a teacher with 20 years of experience. If anything, their job has become a little easier because they can recycle their lesson plans each year instead of having to create them from scratch, and the more familiar they become with the material–  by virtue of teaching it over and over again–  the easier it is to teach it.

Sure, after a few years they might become a “Master Teacher” or they might pick up some additional certifications which they can use to boost their pay a little, but they are still teachers. If they want to make more money, they need to change their jobs: move into administration, for instance, or go into another profession.

Librarians are in a similar situation, but they do have some upward mobility in their jobs– they can become head of a section of the library, or specialize in a particular subject area. Child Protective Service workers rarely stay around for more than a few years, but the ones who manage to stick it out will generally move up into higher levels of administration and will see their pay increase accordingly.

Most teachers say that they want to stay in the classroom, that they went into the field because they wanted to teach and that there are rewards beyond money to what they do.  Having been a teacher, I can agree with that– not only did I love working with the kids and imparting knowledge to them, but I enjoyed being home when my kids were home, having summers off and two weeks off at Christmas. I never expected to make a lot of money as a teacher, and I didn’t.

Yes, in an ideal world we would pay teachers a salary that is representative of the intrinsic value of what they do. In the real world, however, their salaries are paid with taxpayer dollars and in this particular day and age especially, taxpayers are loath to part with those precious dollars to increase wages for those who work for them.

So back to the original question– are teachers overpaid? Well, looking at it using standard compensation practices, yes they are when compared against similarly situated public sector employees. However, I would prefer to say that the problem is not that teachers are overpaid, but that social workers and librarians are underpaid.

Despite what those of the American Enterprise Institute would have us believe, there is an intrinsic value to the services provided by teachers that is seldom matched in the private sector. They may not be underpaid, but most of them deserve every penny they get. To paraphrase the song, “They work hard for the money so you’d better treat them right.”

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