The Toughest Question in Teacher Quality: Are Teachers Underpaid?

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There s no shortage of rabble rousing in ed journals and teachers lounges on the merits and need for across-the-board hikes in teacher salaries. The topic is certainly a crowd-pleaser at any education conference. But are teachers collectively underpaid relative to other professions?

In this quarter s edition of Education Next a journal which consistently produces high-level scholarship while holding jargon to the bare minimum tackles the hot topic of teacher pay head-on. Two economists square off on the topic. MIT s Peter Temin argues that teacher salaries are an example of market failure, reflecting an aversion to risk at the expense of quality. Temin draws an analogy between teacher hiring and purchasing a car: just as with buying cars, it is difficult to tell if a new hire will be a winner or a lemon. Since we want to minimize our risk of paying through the nose for a lemon, we pay lower salaries, which, in turn, repel better students from becoming teachers. In the end, Temin calls for a steep salary-hike to raise the status of teachers and induce more high-achievers into the teacher supply.

In comparison to Temin s economic narrative, Richard Vedder takes a more data-intensive approach. Vedder uses data on household median earnings from the U.S. Department of Labor to compare teachers to members of seven other professions: accountants, biologists, registered nurses, social workers, lawyers and judges, artists, and editors and reporters. Only lawyers and judges earned significantly more but, as Vedder points out, they have to go through longer schooling. Perhaps even more telling was Vedder s use of data from the National Compensation Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That gives Vedder average hourly wages, to help adjust for teachers atypical schedules. Average hourly wage for professionals in 2000: $27.49. For Elementary school teachers: $28.79. For secondary-school teachers $29.14. For special education teachers: $29.97. When you add to those numbers the fact that teachers typically have a far more generous benefits package (26% versus 19%) than is typically found in the private sector, the teaching profession fares even better.

In addition to this lively debate, the Summer 2003 Education Next also contains a piece by Michael Podgursky wherein he fact-checks the NEA and AFT s teacher salary surveys. Among other things, Podgursky underscores why the unions reports rely on numbers that are likely to low-ball teachers salaries and does an eye-opening job of explaining how a large proportion of teachers compensation might be in the form of fringe benefits that elude traditional statististical measures. For anyone who is looking to follow the money, this is a must-read!