Are teachers paid too much?

Nov 02, 2011

A recent report published by Jason Richwine, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, and Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the argument that teachers are overpaid.

Jason Richwine discusses the research behind the report with readers. Ask him questions and tell him your opinion now.

Related: Are teachers paid too much?

Good afternoon everyone.

If teachers are paid too much, then why do their salaries often qualify them for food stamps?

The average teacher salary is over $50,000 per year, and benefits give them compensation over $100,000.

Why would anyone suggest cutting the pay of teachers? Our future depends more heavily on education than anything else. Why not instead tax churches (they should be anyway, remember separation of church and state?), they seem to have an excess of money, I see more churches building and spending money than any other "not for profit." Tax churches like any other organization is taxed, then we'll talk about other ways of raising revenue and alleviating the debt.

Blanket cuts in teacher pay are not what I endorse. We need flexibility to pay the best teachers a lot of money, and the worst teachers not very much. We can't get to that point if we don't understand the current situation. Most teachers are not underpaid.

Should there be any consideration for a person's value to the community? The free market does this by allowing athletes and entertainers to be paid more than some may think they are worth because they may justify their earnings through market conditions. Yet, in occupations where there is no market value, shouldn't we seek additional compensation to attract the most qualified people to occupations such as teaching where success is an important part of the future of our community?

We should pay exactly the market level of compensation to teachers--no more, no less.

Though I don't agree with its usage in this manner, I found your and Dr. Brigg's use of a raw intelligence as a regressor for wage interesting. However, can you provide any examples of industries/fields that use IQ as a basis for compensation? This seems to be a strange justification for your claim because it advances a notion of meritocracy that is possibly flawed, but more importantly, unheard of (to my knowledge) as a means of compensation.

We're not trying to set pay by looking at someone's IQ. We're trying to retrospectively determine whether a person's skills match his compensation. Many organizations use IQ tests, most notably the U.S. military, to make employment decisions.

If teachers are being paid "too much" shouldn't there be a glut of applicants applying for jobs where they'll make more money than they'd actually earn?

There are large queues, particularly in the elementary levels. Some particular subjects, however, do face staffing shortages. Which is why we need flexible pay.

Perhaps you'd better define what type of teachers you're referring to who are supposedly paid too much. Elementary school, middle school, high school, community college or 4 year college instructors? Reading, math, history, science, music, etc? My PhD in Physics qualifies me to teach (lecture, whatever you want to call it) at almost any academic level. Or I could go to private industry and make at a minimum of 3x what I'm currently being paid at my university. What are these 'private industry' fields for which you're comparing salaries?

We focused on current elementary and secondary teachers in public schools. I agree that certain teachers are underpaid, but the average teacher is paid more than market levels.

What was the most surprising thing you found in the research for this release?

Probably that the average teacher does not make more when he or she leaves teaching. We here a lot about teachers constantly being tempted by higher-paying jobs in the private sector, but for the average teacher this just isn't the case.

I'm curious to know beyond your bottom-line cost-based analysis what value you would put on those charged with training the ENTIRE NEXT generation of American workers,. while also instilling discipline, being DAYCARE providers (a cost I'm SURE that was omitted from your analysis) and givng children their first formative relationship with adults OUTSIDE their parents/relatives?

There's no question that teachers perform an essential service. But even the most important public servants should be paid a fair market wage. Not higher or lower.

You stated that the GPA of education majors is inflated in comparison to students who take hard sciences. Are you insinuating that majoring in education is a joke? Thereby, wouldn't education as a whole be a joke?

Education as an academic field lacks rigor, but that does not imply that the actual act of educating is unimportant or a "joke." It just means that most of the skills needed for teaching can't be taught in a classroom.

Both of my parents were teachers, and very responsible with money.   If they made $50,000 a year - $100,000 compensation with benefits like you said - we wouldn't have struggled so much financially growing up.

It's hard to comment on any particular situation, but one of the reasons our results are surprising to some is that much of teacher compensation is buried in pensions, healthcare, and other retiree benefits. I'm guessing your parent did (are doing) well in retirement.

To what extent do you think the controlled media exaggerates the value public school teachers provide? (E.g. Ignoring that they only work for 9 months out of the year...)

It's fairly well known that teachers do not work a full year, and we include that in the analysis.

When you wrote the study, did you account for the time spent with children, planning, evaluating, meeting for special education reevaluation, emails with parents, telephone calls with parents and planning lessons? Is it not understood that to attract and maintain qualified teachers, you have to pay a competitive pay for the large amount of responsibility?

While parts of their jobs are certainly rough, teachers are not unique in facing on-the-job difficulties. We can control for work conditions by comparing public school salaries to private school salaries--public school teachers do much better, even when the private schools are similar in classroom makeup to the public ones.

You keep repeating this phrase without really identifying what is the market level, which is a neat trick since it appears you're the one who wants to determine the market level. So what is it?

The market level is what a person would be paid if he brought his skills to the private sector.

This is a bit off topic, but would your analysis conclude that workers in financial services are overpaid as well?

This is a red herring. Financial services industries are by and large private companies that set their own rates of pay. If they pay too much, the market will punish them. Public sector compensation is interesting to us because it's taxpayers who pay the bills regardless of whether compensation is too high.

What makes you qualified to start this conversation and answer these questions?

I taught several different classes in graduate school, and my wife is a public school teacher. But that's not really relevant. Classroom experience doesn't tell people how to run regressions, download data from the BLS, or go through pension accounting rulebooks.  That's what we did, and it's what anyone has to do in order to perform this kind of analysis.

How would you base pay differently for different subjects? Or would you not? Math and English are standard and consistently tested subjects, so teachers may tend to have a harder job in that regard. Does that mean art teachers, who could be raising the next Picasso, get paid any less? How is excellency determined with all these different variables?

One way is to use application rates. If you're getting 100 qualified applicants for every opening (not uncommon for elementary positions), reduce the pay. If you're getting just a handful, then increase pay.

What private sector jobs did you use to establish the comparison? In other words, what jobs to teachers who leave the field typically take?

Good question. There was no single field that dominated. But in some sense it doesn't matter. We want to know whether teachers are tempted to leave for any job that pays more. And the average teacher isn't.

How are "fair market" wages determined in a capitalist country?

By supply and demand.

How are you hoping your reasearch findings will be used?

I would like to see a much more flexible pay system that rewards the best and discourages the worst. The first step is a paper like this, which sets out the current state of teacher compensation.

So what comparable jobs exist in the private sector that are similar to the duties of an elementary school teacher? How many jobs out there in the private sector call for someone to educate, discipline and nurture large numbers of children at the same time, with the goal of making them useful in some future function? What could possibly a comparable private sector occupation to use for a comparison?

Generally we want to compare skills, not occupations, because of the exact problem you've identified. But one occupational comparison that's interesting is public school teachers versus private school teachers. The former make considerably more than the latter.

Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, both conservative think-tanks, correct?


Thanks everyone for a good discussion.

In This Chat
Jason Richwine
Jason Richwine conducts quantitative analyses on a wide variety of social policy issues, among them immigration, education, welfare and family structure.

Richwine, The Heritage Foundation?s senior policy analyst in empirical studies, works in the think tank?s Center for Data Analysis. Created in 1997, CDA provides the public policy community with state-of-the-art modeling, database products and research assistance.

CDA?s team maintains scores of databases to support strategic research; provides confidential reviews of legislation for members of Congress and the White House; and supplies data and analysis for news organizations.
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