Too Much? Too Little? Just Right? Our Goldilocks Problem On Teacher Pay

This week’s TIME column takes a look at teacher pay – always a lively debate and one that often obscures more than it reveals:

Listen to the pundits, and public education has a Goldilocks problem. Are teachers being overpaid, underpaid or paid just right? Few arguments in education are as contentious — or as misleading. A report released Nov. 1 by two conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, set off fireworks with the claim that teachers are overpaid by a collective $120 billion each year and that their pensions, health care and other benefits make their total compensation 52% higher than “fair market levels.”

The report looked at a variety of factors to reach its conclusion. Some are well known issues; for instance, teachers enjoy more generous benefits than most workers. But the analysis also rested on a variety of debatable assumptions about the quality of the teaching force, the job security that teachers have and opportunities for teachers in the private sector. Only by accepting all of the authors’ assumptions do you reach the eye-popping $120 billion figure.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions blasted the report, and conservatives saw its findings as further evidence that the unions are putting one over on the American people. Mostly lost in the back and forth was the more complex reality of teacher pay. Here are three important factors that need to be considered…

You can see all three factors with just one click on this link to the entire article.

27 Replies to “Too Much? Too Little? Just Right? Our Goldilocks Problem On Teacher Pay”

  1. I’d like to take issue with one “fact” in Rotherham’s article regarding the total number of days in a teacher’s work year compared to that of a typical professional employee. He writes that teachers in Fairfax County are paid for a “194-day contract (for most professionals, the work year is about 250 days).”

    These figures are misleading because they do not take into account the vacation and sick days that other professionals enjoy. In my experience, having taught in several different schools, the 194 day teaching contract (approximately 39 weeks) would include about 2 personal days (which can’t be taken next to any holiday weekend, including Thanksgiving or Christmas) and a handful of sick days, which can only be taken if the teacher prepares detailed substitute plans and, in some cases, can only be taken if the teacher personally locates a substitute to cover the class. It is also very difficult (if not impossible) for teachers to leave work early or come in late, even for doctor’s appointments or other reasons.

    Meanwhile, in the professional world (where I have spent several years working as a lawyer and previously in other positions), typical new employees are given about 2 weeks vacation leave plus 1-2 weeks of sick leave, which often accumulates if not used. As seniority rises, employees get additional vacation leave (3 weeks after 2 years on the job is roughly the norm in offices I’ve seen, with 4 weeks later on). Most office employees can take this leave at their discretion (with notice to their supervisor), including next to major holidays, and can take sick leave simply by calling in or shooting their boss an email.

    Overall, the 194 day contract is roughly 39 weeks with few vacation or sick days, while the 250 day contract for professionals is 50 full weeks, which in reality has perhaps 3-5 weeks of sick and personal leave built into the schedule (if not used, if may often be cashed out upon leaving the company). The result: Using Rotherham’s figures (but accounting for leave time), teachers would work about 38-39 full weeks a year, while a typical office worker might work 46 weeks. This assumes that both the teacher and the office worker get off for the 10 or so major national holidays (Xmas, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, etc.).

    Having worked as both a teacher and as a traditional office employee, I get riled up when people assume that teachers get “3 months” extra off each year, when the reality is closer to about seven to eight weeks, plus they have much less flexibility in their time off which is difficult in planning vacations or visiting family for the holidays.

  2. Over the last few years, we’ve entered an unfortunate dynamic. The centrist reformers such as Gates and Duncan have attacked teachers just enough to make it safe for right-leaning groups such as Heritage and AEI to get a respectful hearing for views they’ve always held. (For them, it’s more about teachers being public employees and union members than it is about the quality of schools.) Together, the centrist reformers and the right have gone a long way toward making teaching seem very unattractive as a career choice. If you want an eye-opening conversation, talk to a group of high school juniors or seniors or college freshman about K-12 teaching. I think we’re experiencing a significant shift in our societal view of teachers, from positive to negative.

  3. let me get this right. if the right wing (AEI, Heritage) and the center (Brookings) and the center left (CAP) are all in agreement that the teaching profession needs a serious overhaul away from the industrial model and toward a market based compensation system doesn’t that suggest that folks on the other side really are fringe? far left and trotskyite union types? That’s another way of spinning the same story no August?

  4. daProfessor:
    Doctors used to recommend lobotomies, just ask the family of Frances Farmer.
    So what if the paid thinkers are arguing for market based compensation.
    They probably think kids are just another brick in the wall.

  5. It should be obvious to everyone by now that the “reform” movement is about privatizing our public school system for the purpose of personal gain. Since much of the tax money goes to teachers, the only way to gain access to this money is to lower teachers’ salaries. You don’t need to be an economist to know how this will affect teacher quality.

    Fortunately more and more journalists are catching on, so it’s only a matter of time before the public becomes aware of this shameful attack on our public schools and its teachers

  6. Linda,

    How can you say that the reform movement is about privatizing public schools for personal gain, without even so much as acknowledging that teacher unions have an economic interest in maintaining the status quo?

    The way I see it, the private philanthropists that everyone reviles like Gates, Broad, etc. already have made billions of dollars before even getting a scintilla of interest in education philanthropy. For your theory to work, you would have to believe that Gates, Broad, et al. decided public education was the most lucrative way for them to make money because they need money. That’s crazy. These guys like Gates, Broad, and Tilson don’t NEED public education to do anything for them. They built lavish fortunes beyond anyone’s wildest dreams OUTSIDE of the public education sector.

    To an objective observer, the group with a more likely economic interest or “special interest” if you will, is the teachers unions. They have every reason to want to maintain the status quo monopoly on public education because without their ability to keep the 550 billion dollar a year blob in their coffers, they have nothing. Whereas, what’s the case for the Bill Gates’ of the world to have their overriding motivation be getting rich on public schools. Trust me, Gates has zero reason to be in it for the money.

  7. Attorney DC:

    What specifically do you find incorrect about the quoted phrase below that got you to use scare quotes when calling it a fact?:

    “At the high end, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Virginia’s suburban Fairfax County earns $44,440 for a 194-day contract (for most professionals, the work year is about 250 days)”

    You cite several anecdotes to bolster your point about vacation/sick days (shocking!), which I could counter with anecdotes of my own that suggest the opposite conclusions you’ve reached.

    Regardless of whatever stories you’d like to tell, his basic point stands: there is a differential in terms of days on the job that ought to get considered in these debates.

  8. I don’t think that all reformers are in the reform game just for the money, but I think that many people are benefitting from the current reform fads, such as high-stakes tests companies. However, I think that Gates, et. al. are seriously confused and misguided about the way that public schools operate and the effect of their supposed “reforms” on the schools, in practice. I feel like many of the wealthy reformers (who never worked as educators themselves) simply don’t understand the real issues in low-income public schools, and that’s why their “solutions” don’t work.

  9. I am not talking about Gates, who is a true philanthropist, but many people are in it for the money. Also, I agree with AttorneyDC that many wealthy people are misguided and will soon realize it.

  10. Attorney DC,

    That’s a different point than one that is often spewed on this blog and also often made by Diane Ravitch: that there is some sinister plan to get rich off the public school system being administered by Gates, Broad, Tilson, and the rest of them.

    Your argument that Gates et al. are not devising good solutions and don’t understand the best way to improve schools is a proposition that — while I disagree with some of it — is a fine proposition to hold. But, it’s an entirely different one from the conspiracy theorist version that Linda laid out.

  11. Attorney DC:

    “but I think that many people are benefitting [sic] from the current reform fads, such as high-stakes tests companies.”

    Define “many” in relative amounts to the total ed reform community. Give justification for why even these folks who you claim are “just for the money” couldn’t possibly be motivated by other altruistic notions.

    “and that’s why their “solutions” don’t work.”

    Specifically which solutions are not working?

  12. Okay then I misread you Linda. When you wrote:

    “It should be obvious to everyone by now that the “reform” movement is about privatizing our public school system for the purpose of personal gain.”

    I assumed that Gates, Broad, Tilson, & Walton who all fund major free market education reform initiatives like choice and compensation reform are precisely the folks you were thinking of as “reform” movement types trying to leverage schools for personal gain.

    Fair enough I misread you. But, what about my other point. Why should we assume that the leaders of teacher unions have motives that are as pure as freshly fallen snow? I mean, it is an empirical fact that most teacher union leaders would not obtain the type of power and/or compensation they currently obtain if we moved to a free market system of education. That has nothing to do with whether a free market system of education is a good thing (that’s an entirely debatable proposition), but there is no denying that teacher union leaders do far better under the status quo.

  13. I am thankful to the unions for getting me a modest wage and a good pension; but if they were so strong would I have had to spend $4000 of my own money for books, materials, field trips and other things that enhanced the education of my mostly poor students? And I know I wasn’t alone because every time I went to Teachers’ Supplies, I met other teachers from my school. I read that the average teacher spends more on her class than the federal government.

    Teacher leaders are teachers so I know from experience that most have good motives.

    We know what the free market will bring because we’ve had it at the college level for some time. The rich kids will go to UC Berkeley and the poor will attend Pay and Pass Technical Institute and will leave with no marketable skills and huge debts. Once we allow this to happen to K-12 we’ll create an underclass even more permanent than the one we have now.

    Teachers are among the most dedicated and selfless of all our public servants and once the effects of this recession are over, most people will recognize it again. The bottom line is this: We will not improve the quality of the teaching profession by disrespecting the people we have.

  14. Linda,

    I was careful to say “union leaders” — not rank and file teachers… although most union leaders were at one point teachers, I think it’s fair to say there is a serious distinction to be made between the job perks and salaries of state and national teacher union leaders. My point was only that if folks who oppose the ideas trotted out by “reformers” wish to contend that their ideas are motivated entirely by “personal interest” than they have to accept the fact that the very same can be said for union leaders whose power, authority, and compensation would not be as good as it is if we shifted to a world of school choice and parents could vote with their feet. Whether choice would work is irrelevant to that point; that union leaders have a PERSONAL interest in maintaining the status quo.

  15. I’m sure there are some union leaders who would meet your description, human nature being what it is, but that was not my experience. Basically these leaders are former teachers who fight hard for teachers to have decent salaries, benefits and working conditions.

    Once teachers have full professional status and make decisions regarding the workplace, as professors do, we’ll see the union morph into a professional association, as it was orginally intended to be.

    By the way, I am not against “choice” for parents. I am against privatizing our school system so that entrepreneurs can make a profit because I believe the money will come from schools for the poor. That appears to be what’s happening now. Frankly I can’t believe that citizens allowed this to happen. On 60 Minutes they talked about bills that are surruptitiously added to other bills so that the public (and most lawmakers) don’t know what’s happening. Is this how privatization got started?

  16. If you want an eye-opening conversation, talk to a group of high school juniors or seniors or college freshman about K-12 teaching. I think we’re experiencing a significant shift in our societal view of teachers, from positive to negative.

  17. “Once teachers have full professional status and make decisions regarding the workplace, as professors do, we’ll see the union morph into a professional association, as it was orginally intended to be. ”

    What do you think will move teachers to have “full professional status”? The way I see it, having a system where teachers are paid solely by years of service and degree attained makes it hard to see teaching as a true profession. I think many young bright college grads would find it uninviting to go into a career where you can be an enthusiastic hard-working teacher and make the same as the guy next door who is happy with just reading the textbook out loud and handing out scantron tests. It is also hard to get excited about a career where you are basically stuck in whatever school district you started in, lest you lose seniority by moving.

    I do think that teachers should have input into decisions that affect instruction, such as curriculum, scheduling, and so forth. I just don’t see that as the main focus of teachers unions right now though. Many concerned parents in our area have been wanting to get rid of Everyday Math for years. With our lousy math scores, you would think that would be an obvious culprit. But I hear nothing from the local teachers union on improving the curriculum.

    I do wonder why Rotherham’s article didn’t mention one big issue with the current compensation scheme: the overloading of benefits at the back-end rather than giving teachers more money earlier in their careers.

  18. Concerned Citizen:

    Here is what I think will happen:

    Once the baby boomer women have retired, I think there will be a severe teacher shortage, especially if the economy improves. At that time, districts will be forced to offer more money and more professional autonomy for teachers. By professional autonomy, I mean teachers will be able to make decisions about what to teach, how to teach and which materials to use. Many people don’t realize it but unions are not able to bargain for curriculum or instruction issues. Legally they can only bargain for salaries, benefits and working conditions which is why that is all they do.

    Once salaries and conditions have improved, the teaching profession will attract both men and women who will gradually demand full control over their schools in conjunction with parents. They will then make decisions about entry into the profession as well as promotion and retention of new teachers. Once they have control over these things, they will not need a union to fight for them and so the union will become an association similar to the American Association of University Professors. The students will benefit because once K-12 teaching becomes a full profession it will attract more talented people than it does at the present time.

    The bottom line is this: If teachers are poorly paid and not afforded professional autonomy, many talented people will continue to eschew the job.

  19. By day, Wade Brosz teaches American history at an A-rated Florida middle school. By night, he is a personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness.

    Brosz took the three-night a week job at the gym after his teaching salary was frozen, summer school was reduced drastically, and the state bonus for board certified teachers was cut. He figures that he and his wife, also a teacher, are making about $20,000 less teaching than expected to, combined.

    “The second job was to get back what was lost through cuts,” said Brosz, a nationally board certified teacher. “It was tougher and tougher to make ends meet. I started personal training because it’s flexible hours.”

    In Texas, for example, the percentage of teachers who moonlight has increased from 22 percent in 1980 to 41 percent in 2010.

    “It’s the economy, primarily,” said Sam Sullivan, a professor at Sam Houston State University, which conducts the survey.

  20. Retire Navy sub commander here. Served 20 years as a nuke. Hold double degrees in math and physics and a master’s in atmospheric physics.

    I teach at a local high school. I cannot begin to describe how bad it is. I cannot find the words. There is no reason to explain. My superiors and the experts in education will say I am a worthless whiner. I am not.

    I am a competent, smart person who knows when things are bad. They are!

    IF I could leave I would.

    I am loved here, but love is not enough.

    I am chained to a failing system and the charters with their heavy, anti-science/religious, low pay, rotten treatment, are no alternative.

    I need to get out fast before I get branded as a failure.

    I am waiting. Then I will leave.

    Until that time I will continue to generate students who attend the best engineering schools and whose parents demand me by NAME.

    And then I am gone. No more will I take the abuse of the edu-wonks and the edu-elite, and the text book monopolists.

    I applied to NOAA. The minute they lift the hiring freeze I am gone.

    Perhaps I will tell my boss what an idiot he is on the way out the door.

    The happiness I feel as I wait is that the people who have made three to four times my salary by bashing me will lose their target.

    Run silent, run deep.

  21. Here’s a link to the AEI/HF study itself.

    The study has strong points and weak points. It recognizes that, using the traditional analytical approach, teacher salaries are 19% below salaries for employees of comparable skills/experience. It then makes several reasonable arguments attacking the application of the traditional analytical approach in assessing whether teacher salaries are high or low. Similarly, the study makes several reasonable arguments regarding how to measure teacher fringe benefits.

    I lack the time and, more importantly, the technical competence to effectively evaluate the study’s arguments. It would be useful if a pro-teacher organization (AFT, NEA?) asked qualified analysts to critique the AEI/HF study. Perhaps one of Eduwonk’s professor contributors could assign some grad students to do such a critique?

    My sense is that the study ignores/under-weights several factors that, if properly weighted, would show teacher salaries are too low: 1) the importance to society of the work that teachers do; 2) the unusual skill set required to do the work effectively; 3) the number of non-contract hours teachers work; 4) the fact that K-12 teaching, relative to other college-degreed positions, has no large upside compensation potential (that is, in many private sector jobs and even some public sector jobs the employee has a prospect for subsequent large financial rewards via stock options, promotion to 6-figure executive positions, and/or job switch to similar but much-higher-paying jobs such as a govt attorney going to a private law firm); 5) the stress inherent in the constantly-on aspect of teaching (i.e., little/no work time when the employee is not performing for an audience) — attorneys, for example, routinely charge a higher hourly rate for time in court than for time at their desk; 6) the fact that, as health costs rise, many school systems are increasing (and will continue to increase in the future) the percent that employees, particularly retirees, must contribute for health insurance, thereby reducing the net benefit to teachers of employer-provided health insurance; and 7) for inner-city teachers particularly, the fact that teachers in performing their ordinary teaching duties are subject to greater threats of physical harm, personal property damage/theft, and law suits than most other college-educated salaried employees.

    Implicit in the study’s analysis is the argument that a disproportionate percentage of teachers, particularly elementary school teachers, are not as intelligent/diligent as the average college graduate. Assuming arguendo that this argument is factually correct, it does not follow that teacher salary schedules are too high. It is likely that, to teach effectively, a teacher must possess intelligence/diligence higher than that of the average college graduate. If so, then teacher salary schedules should be set high enough to attract these intelligent/diligent college graduates and, to the extent that there are less intelligent/diligent teachers, we should try to identify/remove/not hire these teachers while continuing to pay the intelligent/diligent teachers what the job deserves.

  22. In addition, LaborLawyer, teachers work with children who go through an immense process between the ages of 4 and 18.
    The employees of comparable skill and experience do not .

  23. it’s more about teachers being public employees and union members than it is about the quality of schools.) Together, the centrist reformers and the right have gone a long way toward making teaching seem very unattractive as a career choice. If you want an eye-opening conversation, talk to a group of high school juniors or seniors or college freshman about K-12 teaching. I think we’re experiencing a significant shift in our societal view of teachers, from positive to negative.

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