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.