Teachers’ pay has narrow range

Great lawyers make a lot more than average lawyers and great accountants make more than average accountants, said Warren Buffett at the Education Nation Summit. Teachers are paid about the same, regardless of their talents or efforts.

PDQ looks at the range of teacher compensation compared to that of lawyers and accountants, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

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  1. What happens to teachers who decide they want to make more money? They become administrators, or move on to different fields of work.

    Is there any evidence that higher salaries will improve the quality of teaching by existing teachers? If the goal is to improve the quality of the candidate pool or to discourage good teachers from leaving the field, that’s fair. But that would involve a substantial investment in teacher salaries, and the increase would have to be sustained for many years.

  2. I’m sure that there’s some other interpretation of this chart then that teaching skill isn’t seen as a worthwhile commodity. Would anyone care to offer one of those alternative interpretations?

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I’m sure that there’s some other interpretation of this chart then that teaching skill isn’t seen as a worthwhile commodity. Would anyone care to offer one of those alternative interpretations?


      I’ll start with the observation that the X-axis is *NOT* 10th percentile based on skill, but 10th percentile based on salary.

      If you look at the teacher salary numbers, the 10th percentile is a bit under $40K and the 90th percentile is a bit under $80K. This seems to track seniority, so the higher paid teachers are also the older teachers.

      I’d expect that this is the case for lawyers and accountants, too. You don’t make partner right out of school and older lawyers tend to get paid more than younger lawyers.

      So another explanation is that lawyers and accountants simply have a steeper seniority-pay-advantage curve.

      For what it is worth, engineering has a curve with a similar shape at the teachers (maybe a bit steeper) and shifted up (engineers are paid better). I don’t think anyone would argue that skill is not seen as a worthwhile commodity for engineering.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Also, there’s a big difference in work-week for the low and high paid lawyers. A lot of “low” paid lawyers are in offices where they work 35-40 hours a week most of the time. The high paid lawyers work 80 hours and up.

        There’s a lot less variety in length of school day/ school year.

        Accountants also have a wide variety in work weeks, seasonal work,etc.

      • A few decades ago, salaries for new law school grads fell on a pretty normal bell curve. In recent decades there has been a double bell curve – there’s a peak in the $40-$60K range, and another in the low six figure range, representing “BigLaw” (the largest law firms in the nation, paying the best salaries) and “everybody else” (small firms, government, public interest, etc.) A lot of lawyers earning $40K or less end up moving into other fields of work. There are a great many high quality lawyers who wouldn’t be considered by BigLaw due to their fields of practice, or that they have the wrong résumé – it’s difficult to get a BigLaw job if you don’t start out in either BigLaw or a judicial clerkship. Consistent with “that the X-axis is *NOT* 10th percentile based on skill”, I know some mediocre to poor lawyers, both in BigLaw and out, who make a lot of money, and some good lawyers who earn surprisingly little.

        Deirdre is correct that lifestyle choices play a part. I know some lawyers who started out in BigLaw but decided to earn less such that they would only have to work @55-60 hours per week and could see their families.

      • A bit of belaboring of the obvious to try to conceal a misrepresentation of the data doesn’t really qualify as an as an alternative explanation to the one I advanced.

        But it was a nice, lawyerly effort.

        So the question remains unaddressed.

        Anyone else want to hazard an explanation for why there’s less difference between top and bottom pay rates for teachers then for the other, listed professions?

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          Because the study results cherry picked the occupations with the greatest differences?

          Librarian pay is also pretty flat. So is bank teller pay. MOST professions have pretty flat pay, so the question isn’t “Why are teachers different,” but rather “why are lawyers different?”

          • Mark Roulo says:

            Because the study results cherry picked the occupations with the greatest differences?

            Professional baseball/football/basketball (and probably hockey) players have much larger relative differences.

            So do entertainers in general.

            My *guess* is that sales-critters typically have a much bigger spread between top 10% and bottom 10%.

          • What we know is that teachers have the flatest pay rate with accountants having a greater variation and lawyers greater yet. Librarians and bank tellers may have pay scales as constrained as teachers and the selection of those to job categories is pretty telling of a couple of factors.

            First, they’re “throw it against the wall and hope it sticks” responses. You assume, perhaps hope, that there are other professions with similarly flat pay scales. Feel free to offer proof in support. The source of the chart’s indicated. Debunk it if you have the inclination.

            Second, what’s a world-class librarian look like compared to average? Lotta difference? No. Sorry. You know your tools, you see to your duties and the opportunities to go where no librarian has gone before are few to non-existent.

            Similarly, what’s the best bank teller in the world bring to the job that the lousiest one doesn’t? Arriving on time? Making accurate change? Not stealing? Sorry, no prospective Newsweek covers to be found there.

            And you don’t seem shy about adopting Mark’s tactic of changing the question if you don’t like the answers. Feel free to opine about about the spread of lawyer’s pay if you choose but this is an education blog so I’ll focus on why teacher’s pay is so flat.

            The answer, which neither Mark nor yourself seem particularly anxious to engage, is that, unlike professions in which there’s only small scope for the exercise of skill, in the teaching profession pay is not related to the relevant skills, i.e. stuffing kids heads with knowledge. If it were, teaching skill would determine pay and pay would fall along a bell curve. Pardon me for making the assumption that teaching skill is distributed in the same manner as other skills.

            As it is, pay’s a function of tenure and the acquisition of specious degrees. Not a lot of scope for displays of professional skills with those criteria, hey?

          • Are lawyers really that different than teachers? What if, rather than simply looking at K-12 teachers, we use a more expansive definition – including community college instructors, college professors, etc.? We still have a large body of teachers earning in the $40-80K range, but we also have a population that earns well into the six figures.

            You can sort lawyers into similar categories. For example, although some criminal defense lawyers earn a lot of money, and some divorce lawyers earn a lot of money, most on the whole earn a pretty modest living. Lawyers serving the financial industry tend to earn at the highest end, because that’s where the money is.

        • John Thacker says:

          Why? Unions plus it’s a government job.

          As it is, the payscale differs primarily based on years of experience, nothing else. All the research I’ve seen suggests that years of experience are crucially important in the first several years (some studies say first two years, some say up to the first five or six), but that after that, more experience for the same teacher doesn’t really affect quality.

          Lawyers are one of those jobs where individuals will pay much more for (perceived) higher quality. You can argue about whether or not that higher quality is real, but in my experience some lawyer really are better than others.

  3. Lawyer and accountants in the upper end of the scale are no longer “lawyers” or “accountants” anymore. They are partners, managers, leaders, bosses, etc. As Aaron points out, as teachers move up they get a new job title.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Lawyer and accountants in the upper end of the scale are no longer “lawyers” or “accountants” anymore.

      But the lawyers at the 90th percentile (making about $170K per year) are probably still mostly lawyering. Either senior associate, or partner in a very small firm (maybe only him/herself) or working as a lawyer for a corporation.

      The effect you describe is real, but I don’t think we see it much here because the chart stops at 90%, not 99%.

    • All the more reason for the teaching profession to offer more flexibility within the teaching role. Highly effective teachers should be offered paid, part- or full-time mentoring roles, teacher-leader positions, etc. The rigid teacher schedule and career tracks could use some shaking up.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        It’s expensive. My principal would like to free me up another hour a day to coach/mentor but doesn’t have the budget. It would cost him about $20K/year — and yes, our building budget is THAT tight.

  4. Teachers’ pay is determined by union contracts. They aren’t independent contractors. As unions often use consultants in negotiations, different districts would be likely to pay similar rates. This is surprising?

  5. Christina Lordeman says:

    One of the biggest problems in our education system is that how much teachers make has NOTHING to do with their performance. It is strictly a function of number of years on the job and whether or not one has a Masters degree. The few attempts at “merit pay” such as the recent experiment in Nashville have been laughable.

    Are more experienced professionals likely to perform better than rookies (in any profession)? Yes, of course. But lawyers and accountants don’t get raises just by putting in years on the job. And expert physicians don’t have to become hospital managers to get a “promotion” – unlike teachers, for whom the only way up is to become an administrator. This system is highly unattractive to high-achieving prospective teachers – not just because the pay is lousy, but also because it doesn’t convey any appreciation for exceptional performance – and highly attractive to mediocre candidates who just want the promise of a steady job with benefits.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experiences thus far in the teaching field, it’s that it is much more difficult to achieve excellence when one is only expected to be mediocre. Those who do achieve excellence are to be admired for their perseverance and self-motivation, but we just have to pray that they don’t burn out or decide to leave the classroom because they see no other way to advance in their careers.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      The “expectations of mediocrity” start with the edschool curricula themselves. I know a number of people who would have been great teachers, but couldn’t see spending tens of thousands of dollars for two years of really dull classes with no intellectual challenges.

      • Christina Lordeman says:

        You’re preaching to the choir – ed school was intellectual torture!!! That’s exactly it.

      • You’ve moved it “up the chain” a link but you haven’t reached the source of the problem.

        Ed schools are suppliers and as such are controlled by their customers.

        That would be school districts since, as the overwhelming source of teaching jobs, newly-minted teachers don’t meet the expectations of the school district will cause the ed school, eventually, to suffer. Since school districts don’t have any expectations of teaching skills the ed schools are free to indulge every fad and fancy that pops up in the field and free to set requirements for prospective teachers that are wholly unrelated to teaching skill.

        If school districts demanded teachers who could hit the ground running and understood that if the kids don’t learn they don’t stay ed schools would either respond or shut their doors.

    • Actually, in big firms lawyers and (in at least some firms) accountants often do get raises based upon their number of years on the job, up to the point when they either do or do not “make partner”. A few large law firms are presently experimenting with the radical notion that performance assessments should play a role in who gets raises each year, rather than simply having everybody advance based upon their years of service.

      There’s an assumption that increasing pay increases performance, but that isn’t much borne out by reality. There’s pretty strong evidence that people measure their compensation in relation to their peers – so people are content making $60K when their peers make $50K but would be unhappy making $80K when their peers earn $100K. There’s also evidence that, at least at the CEO level, high compensation is negatively correlated with performance.