Tackling the Teacher Pay Debate

The national debate over teacher compensation has received particular focus lately. From the recent strikes across the country to Democratic presidential candidates’ pay increase promises, boosting teacher compensation is in the limelight. And it is often supported by citing a 2019 Education Next Poll that states 72 percent of Americans want public school teacher salaries to increase (more on these poll results later).

But the way the teacher pay debate has been framed misses the mark, according to Frederick Hess and RJ Martin with the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s heartening to see this focus on teacher pay. Terrific teachers are underpaid. School system rolls are too often bloated with administrative and support staff, which means less money for classroom educators. Too much teacher compensation is tied up in benefits, shrinking take-home pay—and pay systems do little to acknowledge teachers who work exceptionally hard or who are exceptionally good for students.

Unfortunately, the teacher pay conversation has been more narrowly framed by the problematic assertion that America’s teachers are systematically underpaid relative to similar workers. Yahoo News has asserted “teachers now make more than 20 percent less than similarly educated professionals.” The Washington Post reported that the “teacher pay penalty” was a “record 21.4 percent” in 2018, while New York Magazine lamented that teachers “could expect to be paid far less than college graduates in other professional fields.”

Here’s the catch: It’s not at all clear that this is true. In fact, the methodology used to produce the “teacher pay gap” is hugely suspect. Applied to other fields, for instance, it finds that nurses are overpaid and that telemarketers are underpaid.

The “teacher pay gap” is calculated by the progressive Economic Policy Institute (EPI) using a comparison of income to years of education, along with basic demographic information, and then noting salary differentials. But such a comparison is lacking, Hess and Martin continue.

…[S]alaries are determined by a variety of factors (such as supply and demand) even after accounting for how long someone went to school. The EPI method treats all bachelor’s degrees as equal. But they’re not: An engineering degree and a literature degree both require about the same number of years of schooling but yield wildly divergent average pay upon graduation.

If teachers were as underpaid as EPI suggests, one might expect a large share of teachers to quit their jobs each year so they could move to higher-paying work. Instead, for all the talk of teacher turnover and teacher shortages, the reality is that teachers quit less often than their private sector counterparts. The quit rate, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is roughly three times lower for public school teachers than for private sector employees. Moreover, it turns out that only five percent of departing teachers cite “salary and other job benefits” as the reason for their departure.

Don’t misunderstand. We’re not suggesting that teachers are living large. But, in most locales, teachers are faring reasonably well. Nationally, the NEA reports that an individual teacher earns $60,477 a year—which is nearly the same as the median American household ($63,179), and meaning that a married couple composed of two teachers is well into the top quintile of household earnings. The poverty rate for teachers is 1.1 percent. And a Federal Reserve survey found that 81 percent of teachers describe their financial situation as either “doing okay” or “living comfortably,” while just 2.7 percent report “finding it hard to get by.” Meanwhile, teacher health care and retirement benefits are generally far more generous than those of their peers in the private sector. In short, this is the picture of a solidly middle class profession.

I want to  return to the Education Next survey I previously cited. While it is true that 72 percent of the general public said they think teacher salaries should increase, there is more to the story. This percentage is before respondents were provided actual teacher salary information. Once informed about how much teachers make, the percentage of respondents from the general public who said teacher salaries should increase dropped to 56 percent. Those previously in favor of teacher salaries staying about the same increased from 25 percent to 40 percent after salary information was provided. Even among Democrats, those previously in favor of salary increases dropped from 83 percent to 64 percent after current salary information was provided.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t certain states and areas where poor teachers get paid too much and excellent teachers aren’t paid enough—I taught in a state where that’s the case—and I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to earn more money. But the biggest challenges facing teacher compensation won’t get solved by “fixat[ing] on dubious claims of a ‘pay gap,’” according to Hess and Martin. Instead, they say, we need to first focus on overhauling benefits.

Former Obama education official Chad Aldeman notes that, for every ten dollars that states and districts contribute to pension plans, seven dollars pay down past pension debt, while just three go to benefits for current teachers.

Along with overhauling benefits, we need to incorporate merit pay into salary determination paired with reforms that allow schools to more easily hire, promote, and fire teachers. I believe we are paying high-quality teachers too little, and poor-performing teachers are getting away with too much (if they should be getting any compensation at all) because of policies that make firing them nearly impossible. Incorporating these approaches will help address the teacher compensation challenges in ways that implementing inefficient across-the-board pay increases won’t.


What did I get right? What should I further consider? Share your thoughts on the teacher pay debate below.