New study: Teachers are overpaid?

Rear view of schoolboy in classroom with hands raised iStockphoto

COMMENTARY: A new study by the Heritage Foundation found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teachers are actually overpaid when you compare them with "comparable private sector workers."

They were careful to consider all types of variables, including accounting for the summer vacations that teachers have, and the number of hours actually worked (compared with the hours school is actually in session). They found that people who switched from private employment to teaching took a pay increase, while those who left teaching to work in the private sector took a pay decrease. The researchers concluded:

...on average, public-school teachers receive total compensation that is roughly 50 percent higher than what they would receive in private-sector employment. While salaries are at appropriate levels, fringe benefits push teacher compensation far ahead of what private-sector workers enjoy. Consequently, recruiting more effective teachers for public schools will be much more difficult than simply raising salaries. (Emphasis mine)

It's that last sentence that I find most intriguing. Because school teachers make more money teaching then they do when they leave education, therefore you can't get better teachers by raising salaries.

Hogwash, I say.

Now, while money doesn't actually do a great deal towards motivating people on cognitive tasks, the same studies show that people need a minimum level of money to be willing to participate at all. And what that minimum level is varies from person to person. I, for instance, would need about $150,000 and a guaranteed massage therapist after work in order to teach first grade. Oy. Now, it's true that you couldn't motivate me to be better by offering me $175,000, but I'm not showing up for the $55,000 average Pennsylvania teacher's salary.

Now clearly, you don't want me teaching any first grade class, although I would love to teach (and have done so) at a university level. But there are other people who would be fantastic first grade teachers who would be willing to consider an education career for $100,000 but are not willing to so for $55,000.

And what makes the difference between those people and those who do go into education? Well, the Heritage Foundation looked at people with comparable skills. We have tons of evidence that (and please, don't shoot the messenger)teachers aren't at the top of the pile, academically speaking.

Research over the years has indicated that education majors, who enter college with the lowest average SAT scores, leave with the highest grades. Some of academic evidence documenting easy A's for future teachers goes back more than 50 years!

With all this information, I think the Heritage Foundation drew the wrong conclusion. More money would make a difference in teacher recruitment and retention -- not because current teachers are underpaid according to their current skill set, but because we want people with better skill sets in the classroom. If we want better performance, we shouldn't be looking at people who are similar to current teachers. We should be looking for people who are better. And that will require, among other things, recruiting people who could make more money in the private sector.

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