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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Are U.S. teachers underpaid?

U.S. teachers earn less, relative to other college-educated workers, than teachers in most other countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) “Education at a Glance 2017, writes Dick Startz on Brookings’ blog. (He added the red arrow to the OECD chart.)

Lower secondary teachers' salaries relative to earnings for tertiary-educated workers

Source: OECD, Education at a Glance 2017.

“Notice that the exemplar of educational excellence, Finland, is most of the way to the left on the chart, while America is most of the way to the right,” writes Startz.

The chart underestimates U.S. teachers’ compensation in some ways, he adds.

Compared to other U.S. workers, teachers “receive more of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits,” get “more expensive health insurance” and benefit from more generous pensions, Startz writes.

Of greater importance, do we know what the right target is? The implicit notion behind the OECD figure seems to be that teacher salaries should be somewhat on par with workers with a similar educational background. To an economist, that won’t fly, no matter how you look at it. Teaching has enormous nonpecuniary rewards—thus, teacher salaries can be lower than other professions. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job—ergo, teacher salaries need to be higher than other professions. Teachers have great job security (after a couple of years on the job)—teacher salaries can be lower. Teaching requires EQ as much as IQ—teacher salaries need to be higher.

The only acid test, Startz concludes, is whether schools are “attracting and retaining enough great teachers.”

“Nearly every state experienced difficulty hiring qualified teachers in . . . special education, mathematics, science and world languages, reports the U.S. Education Department. Bilingual teachers always are in short supply.

There is no national teacher shortage, asserts Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality. Until recently, teacher-prep programs were “graduating twice as many new elementary teachers as public schools hire each year.” she writes. The surplus has declined, but there’s no shortage.

“All schools, as they have for decades, continue to struggle mightily to find certain kinds of teachers (STEM, ELL, special education).”

Schools refuse to pay more “to attract people who have skills which are marketable elsewhere, to live in an undesirable location or to work in tougher environments,” writes Walsh.

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