Greedy. Selfish. Overpaid. Riding a gravy train.
These comments have been directed at teachers since the uproar began over Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that eliminates most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public workers.
National news commentators fan the flames by citing studies showing that teachers make more than the average American worker – without pointing out that “average American workers” include high-school dropouts working minimum-wage jobs.
Many pundits and citizens are spouting criticism about teacher salaries, but not one has stated his or her answer to the obvious question: Exactly how much do you think a teacher is worth?
My mother – a former teacher – recently remarked that a teacher could make more money managing a fast-food restaurant. I thought she was exaggerating.
She’s not. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau, the jobs are comparable:
Average salary for an elementary/middle school teacher: $52,004
Average salary for a food service manager: $57,258.
You may cry out, “But teachers don’t have to work during the summer!”
True. But food service managers aren’t required to have college degrees or in some cases advanced degrees. They aren’t required to take classes to maintain certification, something teachers often do during the summer. And many teachers work more than the minimum required hours per week.
Justifications, you say? Then let’s adjust the numbers by hours worked. According to a BLS compensation chart, teachers make $37 per hour, the same rate as financial analysts and construction supervisors.
Doesn’t seem excessive to me.
Apples to oranges, you say? Different industries? OK, let’s find something on the chart comparable to teaching.
A worker in private-sector training and development – someone who teaches the skills needed for a particular industry – makes $7 per hour more than a public school teacher. And from personal experience, I can tell you that teaching a workshop full of adults is easier than teaching a class of 8-year-olds.
Still not close enough? Let’s use the rate for someone who cares directly for children. According to several online charts, adults who are experienced babysitters earn $12 to $18 per hour with an additional $1 to $2 per extra child. I’ll split the middle and use $16 per hour with $1.50 per each additional child.
The average student-teacher ratio is 15.8, so a babysitter working with those students for 6.7 hours per day and 179.6 days per year, the national averages, would be compensated $45,966.
Of course, this isn’t a strong analogy. Babysitters aren’t required to have college degrees or certification. And they are simply watching the children, not preparing lesson plans, leading educational activities, giving lectures, or grading papers. Yet the similarities in the two salaries and the outcry related to the higher teacher pay suggest a disturbing conclusion: People think teachers are glorified babysitters.
No, no, it’s not that, you insist. It’s all those benefits! Teachers get health insurance and pension plans!
Here’s where the discourse goes even further off course.
Every man-in-the-street interview I’ve seen with a Wisconsin taxpayer and every letter to the editor against teachers has used the same argument: If I don’t have it, why should they? Let’s examine the logic behind that argument.
OK, we’re done. There is no logic. It’s a purely emotional argument, filled with jealousy and displaced anger. Other workers shouldn’t resent that teachers have a pension. They should be angry that their own employers don’t provide one.
The number of private-sector workers participating in an employer-based retirement plan hasn’t changed much in 30 years: about half of all workers have had such a plan through the years. The difference is that more workers now contribute all or part of the funds themselves, as shown on this chart:
Of course, some small companies can’t bear the burden of employee pensions. But giant corporations with booming bottom lines have no excuses, especially since companies have had enough money to boost CEO compensation:
Worker pay has increased 7 percent from 1980 to 2004. CEO salaries have increased 614 percent. But the pundits who decry teacher pensions don’t mention that.
Not the same, you say? Is it different because taxpayers are paying for the teachers’ benefits?
If so, that means taxpayers are saying, “We taxpayers are the employers of the teachers and have the right to set benefits, and we choose to be stingy employers who pay workers as little as possible.”
If that’s your opinion, fine. But admit it! Don’t say, “Teachers don’t deserve it.” Say, “We want a cheap bargain.”
But not all teachers deserve benefits, you claim. Of course. We all have stories about an awful high school English teacher or an eighth-grade social studies teacher with boring lectures. Every job has substandard workers.
But bad teachers keep their jobs and pensions, you say. Yes, it’s true that more bad teachers keep their jobs than workers in other professions. Let’s look at the reasons:
1. Administrators. Almost every school district has a three-year period where teachers can be fired without a reason. If the principal doesn’t like the way a teacher dresses, the teacher can be fired. However, some administrators don’t bother to evaluate new teachers, and some don’t even have the skills to know a good teacher from a bad one. Also, like in any other profession, some administrators hire and retain teachers based on nepotism or favoritism. However, even quality administrators can end up with bad teachers. In some underfunded districts, administrators are saddled with so many other responsibilities that they don’t have time for classroom observations to weed out bad instructors.
2. Unions. Particularly in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the teacher unions are larger and more aggressive, strict contract language for firing teachers after three years makes the process time-consuming and expensive – tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees – so those school districts would rather save their time and money and keep the bad teachers.
3. Necessity. Because of poor pay, location, or other factors, some school districts have a hard time recruiting new teachers and have to keep bad ones until they can find replacements.
Sadly, the problem of bad teachers is getting worse because of the vicious cycle caused by teacher pay. When my mother went to college, women didn’t have an open door to careers as engineers, doctors, lawyers, or corporate executives. The brightest women became teachers.
Now, however, women are choosing more lucrative careers. A 2010 study by McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, reports that only 23 percent of American teachers come from the top third of available graduates academically. Half come from the bottom third. Finland, the world’s top-ranked system, draws 100 percent of its teachers from the upper tier.
The report quotes the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teacher unions: “You have in the schools right now, among the teachers who are going to be retiring, very smart people. We’re not getting in now the same kinds of people. It’s disastrous.” That was in 2003.
The report surveyed college students in other fields about why they didn’t choose teaching as a profession. Low salary and low prestige were main reasons.
I don’t blame them. Public school teachers have to constantly defend their salaries – and their very profession – to a largely unappreciative public. As fewer quality graduates are drawn to teaching, more criticism and less money will be directed to our schools. And our children will pay the price for these flaws in our social and educational systems.
My mother retired in 1999 after 25 years of teaching and another 10 years as a principal. She had earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. Her final salary was $46,500.
But she has no regrets.
“I’d do it again because I really loved my job and the children,” she says. “But you have to want to do it for the job – the caring for children and wanting them to learn. You can’t want to do it for the money.”
“I think it’s a noble profession,” she says. “The rewards are more than money. The reward is seeing the results you get from your students.”
Teachers know that they will never be rich, and many of them delight in the intrinsic rewards of teaching.
But it would be nice if, along with those rewards, they also got respect.
Please read this fascinating study about our teachers and our schools:
Salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Search for nctb1346.pdf because the site’s pdf files don’t open as links):
Link to pension data:
Bogle, John C. “Reflections on CEO Compensation.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 21-25. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.
Kaplan, Steven N. “Are U.S. CEOs Overpaid?.” Academy of Management Perspectives 22.2 (2008): 5-20. Business Source Premier. EBSCO. Web. 11 Mar. 2011.
My assertion that some teachers work more than the minimum hours required is based largely on observations of teachers I know personally, but here are a national survey and some teacher blogs to support the idea:
Stories on the issue of firing teachers:
Student/teacher ratios and other education stats came from this site: