Our Irrelevant Debates – Are Teachers Overpaid?

This “everyone is saying teachers are overpaid” meme has quickly gained traction among the credulous.  You can apparently attract celebrities like John Stewart and Matt Damon to rallies by playing the mom card and telling them that people are saying teachers are overpaid and it’s important to push back on that notion.  Great, except for the most part it’s another in a long list of strawmen in the education debate.  In fact, to the extent anyone in the mainstream of the education conversation is saying anything even approaching “teachers are overpaid” the conversation centers on the sustainability of current public sector benefit schemes for retirement (pdf) and health care.  And while some of the “crisis” rhetoric is overblown there is a real problem with teacher pensions in some states. In the public debate that’s a different issue though than cash compensation, which is what people usually discuss when they want to argue about this. So, it is worth pointing out that while teachers are not overpaid, the wages are competitive in many places.  Like the pension issue, and given the structure of our education “system” like most issues, there is a a great deal of variance.

Let’s take Virginia as an example.  If you teach in Prince William County, a suburban community southwest of Washington, D.C. that’s not a cheap place to live but also is not Arlington, Loudoun, or Fairfax counties you’ll crack $100K a year on a 223 day contract (pdf) and be above $90K working a shorter schedule with a bachelor’s degree by the end of your career.*  Your earnings go up with more credit hours and degrees – generally paid for by school districts.  And you get a pension.  So a household there with two teachers in their late 30s with 15 years of experience wouldn’t be too worried about the government cutting the tax break for their jet but would be far above the median income in Virginia (about $61K) and also in the upper 10 percent of U.S. households.  I don’t happen to think that’s too much, teaching should be professional work and earn a professional wage – still, it’s not a bad wage either.  Starting salaries aren’t too shabby either.

On the other hand, here’s the salary schedule in Madison County Virginia.  It’s a rural county about 40 minutes north of Charlottesville, Virginia and about 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C. (and not that far from Prince William County).  There, 29 years of service and you’re still making in the $50s and less than the median income in VA.  Even accounting for the lower cost of living in Madison County and its surrounding counties this isn’t a competitive wage for professional work.  And just as Prince William isn’t the extreme example on the high end Madison is not an outlier on the low-end of Virginia teacher salaries, there are counties that pay less elsewhere in the state.

Takeaways:  First, again, look beneath the rhetoric, there is a lot of variance in cash compensation for teachers and while teachers are not overpaid, in many places it’s also hard to argue that they’re systematically underpaid either.  Second, in the teacher pay conversation it’s important to distinguish what is being discussed a lot right now – sustainability of benefit schemes – with what isn’t, notably the idea that education reformers are keen to cut teacher pay or don’t think teachers should be paid a competitive wage.  As I noted on Twitter yesterday it’s ironic that villains du jour Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee raised teacher pay in their districts more than almost any of their peers nationally…Third, at some point we will have to have a conversation about productivity and quality. Rather than spending a lot of time arguing about how much teachers are paid we’d do better to have a conversation about how they’re paid.  Despite the National Education Association’s subtle Kremlin-like signaling shift on performance pay at their annual meeting this year the fact is that “steps and lanes” (paying teachers based on degrees and years of service) remains the overwhelming method used.  Differentiating based on challenging assignments, geographic and subject-matter shortage areas, and, yes, performance, is long overdue in a field that aspires to be seen as professional.

Finally, while money matters, the conversation focuses on money at the expense of all the non-monetary things that matter to professionals, too.  Opportunities for professional growth, leadership opportunities, new responsibilities and challenges, and various other non-monetary tools are commonplace in most fields but surprisingly absent in this conversation as well as in many schools and school districts as an incentive and reward.  Accountability matters, too, for professionals and we have a long way to go on the technical, knowledge, and cultural side to get that closer to right.

*Update: A sharp-eyed commenter notes that not all teachers in a county like Prince William will be on the extended contract.  It’s a good point and re-reading I realized that sentence should have made that more explicitly clear than it did.  Regardless, the basic points about variance, relative household income, and what constitutes a competitive wage in a place like Virginia stand regardless.  The comment also brings up the whole issue of a 190-day +/- contract and the impact on salary, an issue for another day.

31 Replies to “Our Irrelevant Debates – Are Teachers Overpaid?”

  1. Great post. Thanks for it. I particularly appreciate its balanced, data-based analysis.

    I’m all for improved methods of assessing teacher impact, but I’d like to see it coupled with systemic changes in principal practice, district management, and other up-the-ladder elements.

  2. I dislike your choice of using END of career salaries in your post regarding teacher salaries. Few people stay in a career for 30 years these days, and new college graduates don’t care what they’ll be making 30 years from now. Most importantly, publishing salaries for the most senior teachers gives readers of this post the quick take-away impression: “Teachers make 100K!”

    What’s the STARTING salary in Prince William County? Probably about $35K-40K. What’s the starting salary in Madison County? Maybe $29K? These salaries are very low for college graduates – and EXTREMELY low for career-changing college graduates. For example, if a 40 year old engineer wanted to switch careers and become a first year teacher in Prince William County, he’d probably be pulling in less than $45K for the first five or more years of his job.

    I also dislike comparing teacher salaries to “average salaries” for Virginians. Teachers aren’t average people: They’re people with (at least) college degrees. A significant percentage of teachers have graduate degrees. Teacher salaries should be compared to the salaries of Virginia college graduates and/or individuals with Masters Degrees, to be fair. I believe only about 25% of adults in the U.S. have college degrees: Assuming a similar percentage in Virginia, comparing teachers to the average salary of Virginians is comparing them to a population mostly without college educations.

  3. Matt Damon should stick to movies.

    Jon Stewart to comedy.

    Eduwonk to education.

    We stay in our respective expertise, and all is peachy.

  4. There’s another issue that gets confused with teacher salaries: the huge increases in education spending over time. Whenever these rising per pupil figures are trotted out, many people assume they’re going into increased teacher salaries rather than retired teachers’ pensions and health care. We’re spending more and more on education without anything to show for it in the actual schools: buildings aren’t renovated, class size isn’t reduced, technology isn’t present, etc. That makes it harder for taxpayers to want to give more to schools, even if teachers do deserve higher salary.

    Another issue that makes teacher salaries hard to compare is the length of their work year compared to most other college-educated professionals who get 2-3 weeks of vacation per year.

  5. Money vs. Kids
    I left a unionized warehouse job, that paid well for my southern Iowa community, to earn a teaching degree. The degree took me five years to obtain with all of my endorsements. I landed my first job in 2007, which started me off at $28,000. I am now 43 and I have two kids getting ready to start college. My college loans left me with $30,000 of debt. I am presently working toward a Master’s degree that will eventually take me over into another lane on the pay scale. I think it will earn me about $1,300 more a year. Unfortunately, in five more years I will have been teaching for ten years and still will not be making as much as I did when I left the warehouse job. But, I do not care. I knew all of this before I made those decisions.
    I entered teaching because I decided I wanted to make a difference in the lives of young peple. Money is important to me, but not nearly as important as teaching our young people. I hear so many teachers complaining about not making enough money. I have witnessed some rather nasty attitudes towards school board members, administration, and government officals because teachers did not like the decisions that were being made in the financial arena of education.
    We must remember why we journeyed into this profession. It requires so much sacrifice and determination. Yes, there are financial problems that still need to be worked out in the education system, but I have choices I can make. I could move to a state that pays higher wages to its teachers or I could pursue another career. However, teaching the kids is worth it all.

  6. Teacher salary scales
    Montgomery County, MD
    Prince George’s County

    Average Home Price PG $326,700
    Average teacher salary $65,681
    BiWeekly pay $1,748
    Monthly Mortgage payment
    30yr fixed @5.5% 5% down
    Monthly Payment $2,271.71

    Average Home Price Montgomery County $487,500
    Average teacher salary Mont. Cnty. $75,882
    biweekly Pay $2100
    Mortgage payment 30yr fixed @ 5.5% 5% down

    Oh, yeah.
    They are overpaid.

    These salaries are probably 1/3 of what Wendy Kopp and Andrew Rotherham earn.

  7. I can’t help but agree with DC Attorney on the presentation of salaries reported at retirement. As a teacher in the state of Mississippi, I can attest that the incremental supplement to teacher salaries has been cut for the last two years. Currently, it shows no sign of being reinstated in the near future, either. I would venture to guess that Mississippi is not the only state having to make such cuts, so that skews the data presented here. With all the responsibilites we face as teachers, can we really quantify the worth of our teaching careers in terms of salary figures? I think not.

  8. I forgot that when you post a link with h t t p @ // @ w w w, it gets blocked until Andrew approves it.

    So here it is (again.)
    Teacher salary scales
    Montgomery County, MD
    Prince George’s County

    Average Home Price PG $326,700
    Average teacher salary $65,681
    BiWeekly pay $1,748
    Monthly Mortgage payment
    30yr fixed @5.5% 5% down
    Monthly Payment $2,271.71

    Average Home Price Montgomery County $487,500
    Average teacher salary Mont. Cnty. $75,882
    biweekly Pay $2100
    Mortgage payment 30yr fixed @ 5.5% 5% down

    Oh, yeah.
    They are overpaid.

    These salaries are probably 1/3 of what Wendy Kopp and Andrew Rotherham earn.

  9. The new superintendent of schools taken over by the state through the Recovery School District will get an annual pay package of nearly $281,000.

    John White
    The Baton Rouge Advocate reports the agreement for 35-year-old John White includes a $225,000 salary, $21,600 car allowance, up to $30,000 for housing and $4,000 for life insurance or other retirement planning.
    White was deputy superintendent for the New York City school system before being hired to lead the RSD.
    The housing allowance is guaranteed for six months and could be extended another six months, so White’s pay package could total $280,600 initially and then drop to $250,600 after one year.
    He also will be eligible for 6 percent annual raises if he gets favorable reviews from state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, under the three-year contract.

  10. I did enjoy reading this post. I have been teaching for 8 years and I am now pursuing my masters, mostly for the pay increase and potential for professional growth. My wife is also a teacher, she has her masters and is currently working on her Doctorates, we have 2 young kids. I would say we live within our means, but it is a challenge. People used to say how awesome it is to be a teacher because of holidays, weekends, and summers off. I also coach varsity level sports, I haven’t had a summer off since I started teaching, I don’t get weekends off, and I am thankful to have major holidays, but most people have those off also. I put in 11 hours a day and get paid for 8. I work 12 months out of the year and get paid for 9. Teaching is a tough profession, we are asked to teach kids manners, right and wrong, how to read, how to write, math facts, how to be creative, and maybe a little physical activity if the schools haven’t cut that out of the budget yet, but thats for another article. I guess what I’m saying I really don’t get paid enough, but most people would probably say the same thing about their job. I’m over worked and under paid, but I enjoy what I do and being happy with my job is the most important thing!

  11. PhillipMarlowe-
    I am going to question your math.

    Your average home price figure for Prince George County is ok (but it was actually the median, not average).
    avg. teacher salary: 65,681/26(bi-weekly) = $2,526

    So in a month, an average teacher grosses $5,052. Probably nets in salary $4,500 a month after payroll taxes.

    Looks like they can cover that $2,271 mortgage payment just fine if they wanted to.

    That average salary figure does not include the net salary that Prince George County district picks up with regards to pension and medical benefits for that teacher.

    The cost to the district of a “salaried” $65,681 teacher is more like $74-80k depending on the economies of scale the district gets with its benefit plans.

    So for someone with just a bachelor’s degree, that’s a pretty good standard of living.

    Before you throw out arguments, please base it on sound figures.

  12. $65,681
    Teacher pension $3,300
    Health insurance $1732
    all Taxes 22%
    Post Tax
    PGCEA Dues $700

    Biweekly $1792

    This coming school year Health will increase to $2165
    and pension to $4620
    Salaries will stay the same.
    Biweekly will drop to $1739

  13. Thanks for your post, I enjoyed it. My wife and I are both public school teachers in Indiana. We make around $85,000 per year (including extra duty pay), before taxes. Indiana is one of the lowest paying states in the Midwest. I have a capped insurance plan that cost me around $6,000 per year (increasing every year). Yes, we made the decision to accept jobs here after being laid-off in Michigan (where pay/benefits are great), I accept that. I coach, participate on several committees, and attend workshops in the summer while completing my masters degree (paid by me not my district – please tell me who gets their graduate work paid for!). Indiana this year passed (Republican – party-line-vote) some of the most radical educational reform legislation for any state. The reform evaluates teachers on student assessment (51%), attendance, and knowledge, participation within the school, etc… I have no problem evaluating teachers with a fair system that looks at everyone in the system (principals, central administrators-curriculum directors, superintendents, everybody) with equal incentive (merit pay) for all as a building or district, not individual (collaboration over competition). Indiana voted to use merit pay to reward “effective teachers,” but there can only be a few in each building because the IDOE doesn’t believe everyone can be effective (if you have 5 language arts teachers only 3 can be deemed effective). The principal gets a bonus for selecting “Ineffective Teachers.” The department head can receive other teachers (within department) merit pay if he deems them ineffective. The governor (Mitch Daniels), also approved cutting 300 million from education, after claiming to have 1.2 billion in surplus (July 2011). My classes are larger, number of classes per day increased by one (less teachers, laid-off 35 last year). Again, I don’t have a problem with evaluating teachers using a pay scale/merit, let’s just make sure it’s fair, it evaluates everyone involved, and it compensates everyone involved. I only see hard times for Indiana in recruiting highly qualified teachers. Who would honestly accept a job or stay in a job that disrespects them so much.
    It takes a village, community, and school to educate a student, why not evaluate it the same way, with incentive, and with pay!

  14. Mr. Bertrand: Did you mean that you and your wife each earn $85,000 per year or that together you earn $85,000 per year (i.e., about $42,500 per person)?

  15. I would first like to say to anyone that thinks teachers are over paid should take a week and come try to do it themselves. I am a teacher as well as a coach and I have been for around 4 years. Before teaching, I worked as a manager in retail where I made double my salary as a teacher. As far as work is concerned, teaching is a much more pressing task. Yes I know we are scheduled for 8 hours a day but the job cannot be accomplished within this time frame. We are asked to collaborate with other teachers, grade 75 papers minimum, do written commentary on students work, contact parents, create lessons, go to workshops, and attend weekly meetings. If you coach football, as I do, then you are looking at another 3 hours on top of the eight for practice not to mention the prep time as well as film watching. And we are asked to teach kids topics they find useless to their lives and motivate them to want to do their best on these topics. I like to look at like this. Lets say we as teachers did nothing except sit in class and watch our students. Babysitters if you will. If I charged a “babysitting” rate of 100 dollars a month per child (which is very low for child care) and I had 83 students year for 9 months I would make somewhere around 72000 dollars. Now if you wanted to give a bonus for teaching the kids algebra, geometry, and trig then I would probably be bringing in around 100k per year. Not including overtime. Instead, our insurance has went up, raises have been cut out, and days have been furloughed. So I make less now than I did four years ago. I believe teachers are underpaid and more importantly under appreciated.

  16. I would like to agree with Georgiateacher. We are the ones that make all other professionals shine. Without us imparting knowledge to all individuals, our world would not be as knowledgeable. Not only are we breaking knowledge to our students, we are playing the roles of mommer, daddy, lawyer,psychologist, doctor and etc. to help our students acheieve their goals. We are not just 8-5 and 5 days a week employees. We are constanly working and thinking about how we can improve a lesson to help students be successsful. Yet, we are the most talked about and under paid professionals on the market. I have been teaching for 20 years. It has been a rewarding experience because I love to empower students with knowledge. Anyone thinks it is easy try it for a day.

  17. I made the decision to go into to teaching because I wanted to make a difference in young peoples lives not for the money. If I wanted a career for the money, I would have became a doctor or a lawyer. Teachers are underpaid for the amount of time and effort we put into our job. We work more than hours than the regular school hours whether it be grading papers or preparing our next lesson. Remember while you are at home in the evenings spending time with your family, there is a teacher out there that is neglecting his/her family to grade papers and/or prepare the lessons to teach their students. Without teachers, the world would not have doctors, lawyers, dentists, or any other profession.

  18. Thanks for the great information. Teachers are 40 hour employees and work at least 30% more than that. My school releases faculity at 3:45, but only a handful of us are actually caught up enough to be able to leave. Even when we do leave, we are still not prepared for the next days lessons. The district is putting more and more students in the classroom and that means more planning and more time making tests. I love my job!!!! If I didn’t I would have left the profession a while ago.

  19. I enjoyed reading this post; it looked at an issue that is, obviously, near and dear to the vast majority of people reading this blog, and did a good job of showing the compensation disparity from district to district. Jason Creager’s response brought up some good points about why teachers deserve greater pay than they receive, but the problem is that those decisions are made by non-teachers; and, I think, non-teachers will generally take for granted the the manners, the right/wrong, reading, writing, etc. Most people forget that they didn’t always know these things, and they were most likely taught by a parent or teacher. Given the state of parenting that we see now, more and more of those life lessons are being taught by teachers.

    I happen to live in an area where the cost of living is similar to Prince William County, mentioned in the blog, but after I complete my master’s degree, my wage will still be roughly half of the average salary in that county. Like most teachers, I work full-time in the summer, and still seem to just get by living well within my means. While I think we do deserve more than we’re compensated, I also like that Chad pointed out in his response that we knew this before we became teachers; it is not a new phenomena, and I highly doubt it will change any time soon.

  20. The blog was trying to make the point that instead of arguing (again) over whether teachers are over- or under-paid, we need to think about HOW they are paid. So many of the comments went right back to discussing how underpaid teachers are.

    As a parent, I am awed at what a good teacher can do with kids and think they deserve every bit of their wages. That said, not every teacher is a good one, and the way the wage structure is set up most teachers are paid for years of service + degrees obtained. I haven’t heard of any studies that show getting an advanced degree improves teaching quality so paying extra for that does not make sense. Meanwhile, a good (but newer) teacher can take years to work up to the salary of a more tenured (but mediocre) teacher. I think it is this dynamic that makes people less willing to vote in payroll increases in general. People like to pay for performance. If I approve an increase in my property taxes to pay more for schools, I have no assurance of the extra money going to the better teachers. In fact, the system of school financing is so opaque I generally would have NO idea where the extra money would go.

    The teachers unions (talking about the unions that negotiate contracts and not individual teachers) should allow performance to be taken into account. They can help shape how this is done, and that would be a great thing. But instead, they fight all attempts to insert performance evaluations into the salary metric. And then they complain that the system is too test-score centered. Well then, help us come up with a fair system! I have a hard time believing it is impossible to devise a fair system of evaluation.

  21. Mr. Bertrand: Thanks for responding to my question. I agree with you that $42K is not enough for full time teachers, who (in my experience) usually put in far more time than the 40-hour contract week.

    Merit pay is a dicey proposition, though. As you noted, merit pay is often implemented in a way that is not fair to the participants and does not reward teachers appropriately. I read your description of a system where only X number of teachers are allowed to be marked effective each year and was initially shocked at the stupidity of such an arrangement. However, the more I thought about it, I remembered learning about other systems with similarly bizarre and unfair restrictions.

  22. I really enjoyed reading the information that you provided regarding teacher salary. However, I strongly feel that some teachers are underpaid. Many people always try to justify underpaid teacher salaries and being a reflection of the cost of living in the area they teach in. No matter what the teacher salary scale is and what its purpose for being what it is, if one state pay their teacher high salary why can’t all other states do the same. In Georgia teacher salaries range from 31K-48 K first years with a Bachelor’s degree and I don’t think this is fair. I think each state need to set teachers’ salaries as a state. Teaching and dedication is a hard job, but someone has to do it!!
    Thanks for sharing your ideas and allowing us to comment and share our unique ideas.

  23. I would like to reference the pay salary for PWC schools. Classroom teachers are not on a 223 contract. Classroom teachers are on 195 day contracts. The 223 contracts are reserved for administration and central office personnel. If you want to quote salary scales, please be accurate in what you are quoting. A teacher with a master’s and 10 years experience makes $59,000. And has for the last four years. We have not had a pay (step or COLA) increase for four years.

    I had a hard time taking anything you said in this post seriously because of this egregious error. Admittedly you may have had some wonderful insight further down in the post, but I missed it.

  24. I really enjoyed reading the comparisons of salaries from one state. It is amazing to me the difference you can have with just a 30 mile difference. I am also amazed at the differences in which states pay teachers. For example, the state of Indiana pays teachers a smaller salary, but have great buildings and structures. Our next door neighbors in Ohio have a much higher teacher salary rate. Their buildings however are not in near as nice shape as Indiana. They do not have the money to fix buildings or put air conditioning in them. Why are there so many differences? Shouldn’t we be able to have the best of both worlds?

  25. God’s Take on Teacher Salaries:

    Alabama Senator: It’s Against Bible To Pay Teachers Too Much

    Why aren’t teachers allowed to earn more money according to Alabama state Senator/ evil leprechaun “Shadrack McGill?” Uh, because it is against the Bible to trick people who are not supposed to be teachers according to God’s will into wanting to be teachers just for the sweet, sweet salary. “It’s a Biblical principle. If you double a teacher’s pay scale, you’ll attract people who aren’t called to teach,” McGill argues alarmingly earnestly for an adult human. That’s cool, so teachers should all think of themselves as wise, poor socialists doing the Lord’s work, like Jesus?

    Ha ha shouldn’t it actually be against the Bible for Alabama Republicans to talk about education?

    “To go in and raise someone’s child for eight hours a day, or many people’s children for eight hours a day, requires a calling. It better be a calling in your life. I know I wouldn’t want to do it, OK?

    “And these teachers that are called to teach, regardless of the pay scale, they would teach. It’s just in them to do. It’s the ability that God give ‘em. And there are also some teachers, it wouldn’t matter how much you would pay them, they would still perform to the same capacity.

    “If you don’t keep that in balance, you’re going to attract people who are not called, who don’t need to be teaching our children. So, everything has a balance.”

    Because, capitalism has no effect on teachers! No wonder the kids are learning nothing but COMMUNISM in school these days.

    And then McGill defended raising legislators’ salaries on the basis that it helps prevent corruption among elected officials: “[The lawmaker] needs to make enough that he can say no, in regards to temptation.” Because lawmakers, on the other hand, are not doing the Lord’s work, no matter what Republicans say.


  26. I live in Prince William County. Teachers are overpaid, period. The pensions that these people are pulling in are draining on taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for school system. They need to re-vamp the system so that teachers contribute to their retirement via 403B with a match. Private sector has already moved in this direction. I’m tired of hearing how teachers are underpaid and have 2 1/2 months off during school year.

  27. To JeanW’s comment:

    It may well be that PWC teacher pensions are too generous. In Pennsylvania, where I teach, the teacher pension is more generous that I expected when I began the job. Due to the political maneuverings of a former governor and state assembly (and the lobbyists who influence them, including those representing teachers), the pension multiplier for all state workers was made more generous some fourteen years ago. Practically all of us who work in the classroom showed up for work one day to learn that our pension multiplier had increased overnight. I’m not absolving myself of responsibility–I do pay my dues, after all–but I do this work because I love to do this work and not because I’m looking forward to a pension that the commonwealth cannot afford.

    My experience is that most public school teachers are reasonable, probably more like you than your phrase “these people” suggests. There are more dignified ways to engage teachers in an honest conversation about the highest public good.

    For the past seven years, I’ve taught the high achievers in my school. My students (roughly 100 per year) graduate to a world of abundant opportunity. They have the ability and credentials to choose from a host of college majors and career paths. It’s a disappointment–but certainly no surprise–to see that, year after year, our most talented practitioners of learning want nothing to do with a career in teaching. They know intuitively that your description of “overpaid, period” teachers with “2 1/2 months off” sounds too good to be true. They’d call it rhetoric.

    My summer has consisted of 72 college recommendation letters, the review of two novel manuscripts written by incoming students, the re-design of my reading quizzes to accommodate a surge in next year’s enrollment, ongoing email correspondence with students and parents, and now the influx of Common Application invitations. I’m happy to do the work; it certainly doesn’t demand a full day, but none of my friends in banking, medicine, industry, or self-employment works the hours I do from late August to early June. Of course, I’m a sample size of one, but I know I am far from exceptional in this regard. Get to know more teachers and see if I’m right.

    And finally, to conclude that your local teachers are overpaid, I think that reasonable readers need to account not only for pensions but also for annual salaries. Up here in PA, teachers don’t begin to earn pay commensurate to their level of education until around 15 years into the job. I’m heading into my 15th year and I haven’t broken $60k yet. Needless to say, I made my own decisions and chose to teach for other reasons–I’m not complaining. But don’t think for a second that your comment does anything other than inflame a like-minded part of the population.

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