Study: Public teachers are paid well

Public school teachers are paid as well as similarly skilled private-sector workers but receive much better fringe benefits, concludes a study by Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst.

Public-school teachers earn less than non-teachers with the same level of education, but “teacher skills generally lag behind those of other workers with similar ‘paper’ qualifications,” they write.

Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent. Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.

Public-school teachers contribute less than private-sector workers for generous pensions and retiree health coverage.

Factoring in the value of more generous fringe benefits and greater job security, public teachers receive compensation 52 percent greater than market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion a year, Biggs and Richwine conclude.

Update:  Here’s more on the study, plus a reaction from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who charged the AEI report “uses misleading statistics and questionable research.”

“If teachers are so overpaid, then why aren’t more ‘1 percenters’ banging down the doors to enter the teaching profession?” Weingarten asked in the release, referring to higher-income Americans. “Why do 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within three to five years, an attrition rate that costs our school districts $7 billion annually?”

 If teachers earn the same as comparable private-sector workers but eventually qualify for a better pension (and job security tied to seniority), a high attrition rate among new teachers isn’t surprising:  New teachers often get the toughest assignments and the fewest perks.

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  1. I didn’t read the report, only the Washington Examiner article on the report–which didn’t differentiate between, say, elementary school teachers and high school math, physics, biology, chemistry, or other teachers (ie, math and science teachers). Also, were these pay differentials uniform across the country?

  2. Also, did the salary calculations control for teachers’ shorter work year and day?

    • Teachers have a shorter work year, but definitely NOT a shorter work day, unless you are being disingenuous and not including all the time outside of school hours that go to grading and class preparation. I know a lot of teachers, and they easily work 9 hours per day during the week… 6-7 hours at school, ans 2-3 hours after school hours grading and preparing for class.

  3. “Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.”

    It’s not even slightly unusual for people who are changing fields to take an immediate hit in the pocketbook, because their experience is from a different field. The relevant measure would be how those former teachers are faring, say, five or ten years later. As obvious as that is, why do I doubt that AEI took the time to investigate. You wouldn’t want to ruin a perfectly good anti-teacher thesis with facts, now, would you.

  4. Christina Lordeman says:

    Good considerations above. I find it highly unlikely that high school physics teachers are “overpaid” to the same extent that elementary school teachers are (using the standards applied in this study).

    This article is interesting because of what it reveals about standards in the teaching profession. Some thoughts I had while reading:

    If teachers are “underpaid” according to their educational attainment but “overpaid” according to cognitive ability, what does that say about 1) the type of individual that is currently attracted to the teaching profession in America, 2) the admissions standards of ed schools, and 3) the quality of education provided by ed schools and/or the level of academic competence and accomplishment deemed necessary for success in teaching?

    If teachers who switch to non-teaching jobs experience an average decrease in wages, is this necessarily evidence of a deficit in their cognitive ability and talent (as the article suggests), or could it also be (at least partially) a result of less rigorous education and/or the perceived value of academic credentials and work experience in education as compared with other professions? In other words, in the eyes of employers, how does a former teacher applying for a non-teaching job look “on paper” compared to a career-changer from a different field? How does an M.Ed. or M.A.T. look compared to an M.B.A., M.A. or M.S.? A B.A. in liberal arts compared to a B.S. in education? How much of an accomplishment are these degrees viewed as representing in the free market, and why? Is it purely because of perceived differences in the individuals attaining those degrees (as “raw talent”) and/or because of perceived differences in the level of knowledge and skills delivered by degree programs in education vs. other fields of study?

    Is it fair to automatically add generous retirement benefits to calculations of how much teachers are paid when teachers only receive the full amount of these benefits if they remain in the profession for quite some time, whereas other professionals earn benefits that aren’t lost if the person decides to change careers?

    What shocked me was the article’s conclusion that “teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention.” It might be true, but this only proves that we’ve done a horrible job recruiting and retaining talented individuals in the teaching profession. The article provides valuable insight into the status quo, but I think the take-away from this study should be that we need to figure out how to get more talented individuals into the profession, not that we could reduce teacher compensation and still maintain a mediocre teacher work force. I’d like to see more research investigating the type of individual attracted to jobs with low pay but high job security and benefits compared to the type of individual attracted to jobs with higher pay but less job security and fewer benefits. Perhaps we could take away some of the “perks” that serve to make the job “safe” in exchange for more competitive salaries that reward accomplishment? (Is that what that last sentence means by “comparable cost”?)

    • Fromer HS Science Teacher says:

      You said: “If teachers who switch to non-teaching jobs experience an average decrease in wages, is this necessarily evidence of a deficit in their cognitive ability and talent (as the article suggests), or could it also be (at least partially) a result of less rigorous education and/or the perceived value of academic credentials and work experience in education as compared with other professions?”

      How about this: Some teachers got so absolutely disgusted by the whole teaching thing that they quit and took a lower paying job quite happily. That’s what I did.

      But I do think that there is a prejudice against former teachers out there as you mentioned. The disrespect for teachers is that ingrained.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I’m a high school physics teacher and I’m not sure I’m overpaid. It is certainly true that not many people graduate college knowing enough to teach the subject. However … Recently I was talking to a fellow HS physics teacher who is starting to feel burned out. “I’m seriously thinking of leaving teaching,” he said. “Is there something else you’re particularly interested in?” I asked. “That’s the problem,” he replied, “there really isn’t anything else I can do.” Physics is hard but a degree in physics means doesn’t mean you have any other useful skills. As more and more people are finding out, a degree in an academic subject may not fit you for anything more than a continued existence in some academic institution.

      • Second that, Roger.
        After teaching for 6 years, going back to research work (which I did in Ukraine) or practical veterinary (again, the degree I had before moving to the US) seems close to impossible – the skills are rusty, the knowledge of the field is lost… Starting from the bottom, no, thanks.

        In teaching, I don’t feel overpaid either… I know the subjects I teach. But in 6 years there was not a year for me to teach just one the same subject – the subjects are changed, or new subjects are added on top of the old ones, so in addition to refining lessons for last year courses, I make lectures/tests/labs/exercises for the new ones… Where those happy teachers who can just focus on refining teaching the same curriculum from year to year?! In my school, there seem to be a very few of those… And we have almost 400 teachers!

  5. The story says “Public school teachers are paid as well as similarly skilled private-sector workers…” but your headline says “Public teachers are paid well.”

    It could well be that similarly skilled private sector employees are paid very poorly. In which case, neither are paid well.

    That, indeed, would be my assessment. Certainly I would never say that X is paid well because X is paid as well as Y. That would be illogical.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    I don’t know about a shorter work day. My wife had the usual class day and two to four hours of homework each day and a stack on the weekends. For various reasons, we drove a lot on the weekends and so we got a light she could use in the car to work at night.
    Part of the summer vacation is used in preparing for the next year.

    • others take work home also, after a longer workday and fewer holidays. Also, not all and probably not most, teachers do significant amounts of work in the summer unless they will be teaching a new grade or course. I have known many who have taught the same grade for decades and have done no summer work unless they take a -paid- ed course.

      • As usual, you are being disingenuous. Mr. Aubrey said nothing about the work year/ summer… his comment was SPECIFICALLY about the work day. And during the school year, teachers easily spend 2-3 hours every day outside of class hours… so, for 6-7 hours in school, and 2-3 hours outside school hours for grading and course preparation.

  7. I definitely get paid less now as a teacher than when I was an engineer. I definitely have a lot more stress in my life working as a teacher, and I find the work more difficult. (not more demanding in knowledge)

    I don’t mind the pay but it is definitely not a cushy job. It is decent pay yet most something like 50% of new teacher quit in the first 3 years. I guess most of those teachers are bored with easy life they lead and are moving on to find more demanding jobs.

    • momof4, the others who take work home generally are paid more. People at the same salary level as teachers rarely take work home to the same extent that teachers do. And it’s not true that teaching the same course means that there is no prep work. Plus, some of the work is things like contacting parents, supervising school events, etc, that are unrelated to whether or not the same course is being taught.

  8. Ponderosa says:

    I’ve taught the same course for eight years and I still spend many hours a week designing and redesigning lessons. I would love to take a whole year off just to plan better lessons. Planning deep, interesting, elegant lessons takes tons of time, in my experience.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I’m on my seventh year and I agree with everything you say. However, there are teachers who teach the same thing year after year. Teaching is a job where how much time you spend (and how you spend it) depends a lot on the individual.

      Unfortunately, the ones who care the most are probably stressed the most.

      • I’m not denying that. The bureaucratic nature of public schools lends itself to wide variations in teacher behavior. There are plenty of excellent, hard-working teachers, plenty of timeservers and plenty in the middle. I spent a total of 6 years driving my kids to MS and the teacher (and librarian) exodus from the building started well before the last bell (yes, I am aware that some worked at home, later – and some didn’t).

        However, that doesn’t change the fact that prospective teachers have had more exposure to what teachers do than do most college students in other fields.I can’t imagine any prospective teacher who is unaware that teachers have to grade papers. Whining about it is just unattractive.

        • Lightly Seasoned says:

          Prospective teachers generally enjoy grading papers, in my experience. They volunteer to do it!

          I was out hunting last weekend with a group basically comprised of 1-percenters, and I avoided saying what I do for awhile since I didn’t want to listen to how I’m overpaid, yadda yadda. They were actually pretty sympathetic when they did find out. I wouldn’t buy totally into the stuff Joanne posts all the time.

  9. The American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

    It must be right-wing propaganda day at JJ’s.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nobody’s “whining”. People are pointing out that there is more to a teacher’s day than the dishonest implication that it’s over at, say, 2:45. Not whining. Just correcting somebody who knows better and didn’t figure everybody else knows better. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?)