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Teachers paid much less than their peers

Linda Darling-Hammond


Are American teachers overpaid? Really?!

Ask the average teacher in Colorado earning less than $800 a week, while her counterparts with a comparable level of education and experience bring home over $1,200 a week. Ask the parent of a college student in Michigan why he is trying to talk her into a degree in accounting or engineering rather than teaching middle school math. Heck, ask any of the young people signing up for two-year stints through Teach for America why they are heading for Goldman-Sachs when they leave in year three.

The study that posed this question—presumably with a straight face—could only do so by inflating data on what teachers earn—by including pension costs that are not available to teachers during their working years and are never accessed by about 40 percent of them—and by underestimating the actual hours that teachers work—using "contract hours" rather than the 50-plus hours a week teachers actually spend preparing for classes, grading papers, and communicating with students and parents outside of school hours.

The truth is that, in a recent OECD study, pay for U.S. teachers ranked near the bottom of the list of participating nations, weighing in at only 60 percent of the wages of other college educated workers. Meanwhile the salaries for teachers in higher-achieving nations like Finland, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia were comparable to those of their college-educated peers. Furthermore, teachers in these nations receive high-quality preparation at state expense, while American teachers typically enter a low-paying field with a bundle of debt from having put themselves through school.

Adjusting for differences in the number of weeks worked, a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that men experience more than a 20 percent penalty for choosing teaching, and women experience a penalty of nearly 7 percent, a sharp drop from the 1960s when pay for teachers was considerably higher and women had fewer options. In 19 states, including Colorado, the wage penalty for teaching is more than 25 percent for both men and women. In no state is teacher pay equal to that of other college graduates.

What's worse, teachers in high-poverty districts, where the work is harder, the days are longer, the class sizes are larger, and the needs are never-ending, earn about 30 percent less than those in more affluent districts. As a recent study from the Center for American Progress found, unequal school funding means that the teachers taking on the greatest challenges typically do so with the least support. Inadequate and unequal salaries translate into less well-qualified teachers and greater turnover in the schools that serve the neediest students.

This is no way to close the achievement gap. We need to heed the lessons of nations that honor and support their teachers if we ever hope to produce a world-class educational system that serves all our children well.

This piece was written for U.S. News and World Report's Debate Club