Friday, July 01, 2005

A Debate On Teacher Pay

The National Council on Teacher Quality has posted a debate on the following question: are teachers underpaid? A team of two economists on one side of the debate challenges an economist on the other side of the debate and really get into some meaty points:
--is having the summer off a bug or a feature?
--how much out-of-school time do teachers spend working compared to other professions?
--is there really a list of "comparable fields" to education?
--should pay be compared at a weekly rate or an annual rate to be most accurate?

I have no idea how long this particular debate will stay at the linked URL, so if this topic interests you, go read it as soon as possible.

Am I underpaid?

Seldom will you hear me complain about my pay. In my classes I always tell the students how poor I am, how I've never been to the Bahamas (hint hint), how I drive a Kia. I hate to admit this, since I have some (now-former) students who periodically read this blog, but those types of comments are more for rapport than sympathy. I'm not one to turn down a pay raise, and neither am I happy to roll over when the school district wants to save a few dollars at my expense. I'm not happy at all with the amount of union dues I pay! I certainly can't afford the types of houses that my teachers lived in when I was growing up, but that may be more a function of the real estate market than comparable teacher pay. I linked here to a CNN story that said that when adjusted for inflation, teacher pay is up over the last 20 years but some states have seen a real decline in pay.

So, are teachers underpaid or not?

Heck, I don't know! I live comfortably. I'm in the process of buying my grandparents' house; paying for it will require a healthy chunk of my take-home pay, probably a larger chunk than it did for my non-college-educated, just-retired-from-the-military grandfather in 1961. And he paid it off in 20 years, something I'll be lucky to do. So that's one metric we can use, but like I said earlier, that may be more a function of real estate prices in general than teacher pay in particular.

I now make slightly more than I did when I worked in industry over 8 years ago, but I'm definitely putting in fewer hours a year now than I did then. I became a teacher because I thought it would allow me to be a better father--when my son's out of school, I'm off work. My dad was a railroad machinist and had four kids--there were no father-son bonding trips. Money was tight. I take my son somewhere "exotic" every summer, and we have plenty of other time throughout the school year to do things together. I have enough money to do this and I don't live paycheck-to-paycheck. Bottom line: I'm comfortable enough, and I enjoy my time off work. Maybe I'm worth more, and I could certainly make more were I to go back to industry. But I like what I do. For the most part, I'm content.

That's pretty good, isn't it?

Update, 7/1/05 9:42 pm: That didn't take long. After reading this post over at the EducationWonks I thought I should clarify my remarks here. I live a comfortable life with the money I make right now, but I certainly think there are better ways to structure pay scales. What I addressed above was merely the number of dollar signs on my paycheck, not the system that generated that paycheck.


Darren said...

I taught my first year on an emergency credential, which meant that I had a math degree and a pulse.

I was in an intern program for my second and third years of teaching, attending classes on nights and weekends. That's how I got my credential. A 2-year intern program. But it wasn't *every* night and *every* weekend, although sometimes it seemed like it.

Shannon Love said...

Some teachers are underpaid and some are overpaid. The problem is that teaching is one of the few remaining fields were people are not paid based on their skill set but by collective criteria such as seniority.

The truth is that some teachers have skill which are extremely valuable in the private market while other have skills that are nearly useless. Anybody who can teach high school math, science or computers can walk out the door of the school and land a much more lucrative job in the private sector. The same cannot be said for a history teacher or a tennis coach.

A good first step to improving education would be to set individual pay based on area of specialization. Right now, to raise the salary of math teachers you have to raise the salaries of all teachers. This is usually prohibitively expensive and gives no incentive for those interested in education to spend the additional effort to become math teachers.

Anonymous said...

Having the summer off is definitely a feature, at least here in California's Central Valley.

About eight years ago, the idiot Governor Gray Davis suggested that California go to year-round schooling. I was in another state at the time, and when I read about this I couldn't believe it. California is full of older, perfectly serviceable schools... with electrical systems incapable of handling air conditioning.

It's difficult if not impossible for small children to learn when the temperature gets over 100ยบ. Yet that's what year-round schooling in California would lead to in many instances. I say, if you propose that sort of thing, let's see how YOU fare when the air conditioning is turned off. (Of course, I also support the idea that they should turn off the air conditioning at the Capitol when they are overdue with the budget. It's all about incentives.)

Anonymous said...

Miller Smith at

Here we go again! Anyone here run a business that had to make money? Seems not. I have and do.

I run a small scale electrical business and teach in Prince George's County Public Schools.

We have all the p.e., art, english teachers we need--more than we need. We have so many applicants for each open position we are very very picky,

We have hundreds of science, math, and special ed positions open with NO QUALIFIED APPLICANTS to choose from.

This is how to find the 'proper pay'. Lower the english/art/pe people's pay until you get the people who will work for the lower pay and still get the minimun performance. Raise the pay for science/math/SPED until you get a good sized pool of applicants for your minimun performace standards.

This is how the real world works that has to maked money. If you don't want to lower the pay of the surplus teachers, then you are saying it is just fine that students end up with perm subs and no real teachers in science/math/SPED.

That a union would control the spending of public money is just criminal.

Dan Edwards said...

Different pay for different subject credentials.....what about elem. level teachers who teach self contained classes? Who is to say/determine a grade 3 teacher is worth more pay than a grade 4 teacher? Most people who enter the teaching profession do so because they like kids and value education. For those in secondary, it allows us to work in a subject that we like (history, science, math, literature....). Many districts are multiple educational level districts......K-12, K-8, 9-12, etc. As I see it, until someone proposes a viable alternative to pay some teachers more than they pay others based on something other than years of experience and education level, this is the best solution to teacher pay that we have.

Unions control public education spending? I doubt it. If NEA/AFT and their state affiliates did so, would there be such a huge educational bureaucracy? Would those edubureaucrat parasites be sucking so much money from the state educational fund pool if the teachers unions controlled public education spending? [Geeze, did I just say something positive about teachers unions ??? (even if it is fantasy)]

Darren said...

I've thought about differential pay for subject areas before. I'd have a hard time looking an English teacher in the eyes, knowing how much time they have to put in to read and comment on those chickenscratch essays students turn in, if I got paid more just because I teach algebra.

And I've been a manufacturing manager before, responsible for hiring/firing/training employees. So many of the "schools should be run like businesses" arguments fail when subjected to the slightest illumination. For example, if I as a mfg manager didn't like the raw materials I received, I shipped them back. How exactly would I do that with students...?

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned year round classes. What a great idea! We're stationed in Germany and we send our 8 and 6 year olds to the German school. Their summer holiday is 5 weeks, but they have three 2 week holidays during the year - fall, Christmas, and Easter (and it is on Easter and called Easter break). Before teachers get upset at having to work more weeks at the same pay, I need to add that the school day here ends at noon or 1 depending on the grade. It's a great system! The kids have time to enjoy the afternoon and there isn't a overblown summer gap during the year.

Too bad we can only be here for 3 years, but at least our kids will come away fluent in a second language. This reminds me, the Germans start a second language during the elementary school years. This early start is much better than waiting until high school to emphasize a second language.



Darren said...

Tom, I've never heard an American complain about sending their children to German schools. I'm glad you're not the first!

Anonymous said...


I can not say enough about the great system here. I am so happy our kids can experience it (along with the Japanese preK and K they had). There was a story about the local base public school where they were having 2nd graders use PowerPoint. To me this is useless, especially when they probably can not name the continents. To sum it up, we're really happy. And it's interesting to see that education can occur in a 4 hour period as opposed to a typical US day of 8 hours, without a recess in some cases (the Germans have 2 and sometimes 3 ten-minute recesses - the first being a breakfast break where they eat rolls).

I have been trying to find a table showing the rankings of various countries with respect to their elementary education. Do you have a link or resource for this information?


Darren said...

Put "timss report" into any search engine. It will link to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Time Bandit said...

Interesting perspectives here. I have to disagree with Miller Smith's suggestion that you cut pay for English teachers. If teaching only involved putting a warm body in a classroom, then Miller would have a sound argument. But if you start running down teacher pay among any group of teachers, the first ones you'll lose are the ones who have other career options. The teachers you'll hang onto are the ones who don't have anywhere else to go.

Teaching is a profession. It takes skills to manage a class and to effectively deliver curriculum to kids. Like Darren, I'm also someone who left the private business sector to go into teaching. I'm a single parent and coming into teaching meant taking a pay cut, but it was worth it to free up my summers and to become the best parent I could be.

I don't expect to ever make the same money I was making in marketing, but it's not much of a sacrifice when you count up all the opportunity costs involved in not being around as my teenager grows up.

That said, low teacher pay is absolutely hurting education in this country right now. The income teachers command--altho certainly better than how bad it was 20 years ago--is still keeping many excellent would-be educators out of the field. As a society, we're paying the cost of that negligence.

I think offering pay incentives for the disciplines that are hurting the most, math and sciences, is certainly a good idea. But consciously driving the most versitile teachers out of the other fields is just a silly, ill-considered idea.

--Bucky Rea
Brown Bag Blog

Anonymous said...

Hello Again Darrell,

Thanks for the link. It was what I was looking for. The results were interesting.

A couple of things:

Since you teach in CA, can you help us with your opinion of the quality of education in CA. Specifically, we are looking at Chico or the Marysville area to maybe settle in when my wife retires from the military in 2 years. Since we have three children (ages 8, 6, and 3(, we're interested in the state of education where we settle. I had heard that CA's education level was slipping. What is your perspective from the inside?

I have to admit, I was pleased to see that CA's elementary schools' days ended at 2 to 2:30, with 2 recesses and a decent lunch period. Other states had school days until 3:30. After having my kids come home at 1 from their German schools, I like that they have an afternoon of play after their homework.

One last comment, regarding what "Mister" said on low pay keeping people from being a teacher. I think the union barriers to entry are more of a problem. Personally, I would love to teach when my wife retires. I have taught at the university level as well as lowly CCD classes, I enjoy teaching (I've even home schooled for that reason). As for teaching, I would not mind the pay so much, but I do not want to go through the degree and certification requirements. Many retired military members would want to teach. Having grad degrees in science and math, they could step in and start teaching. At their age, it is not worth the hassle for them to get their union mandated qualification.

Thanks for the help.