Are teacher overpaid?

March 18, 2010

Unfortunately, this article from MSN encarta is no longer on the web. I managed to find some cached copies and so am posting it here so it is preserved. The numbers are a little out of date but still hold up as comparisons. Teachers remain the lowest compensated individuals in their comparable professional group.


“Are Teachers Overpaid? by Tamim Ansary
November 5, 2002

Some people think teachers are overpaid–I get e-mail about it all the time. Other people think teachers are underpaid. I get a lot of that e-mail too.

I was going to weigh in with my own opinion when I realized I couldn’t, because I didn’t know how much teachers make–or how much anyone else makes, for that matter, except for a few well-known CEOs and sports stars.

I said to myself, “Get some facts before shooting your mouth off, Tamim.” (I learned that from a teacher.)

Lucky for me, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) researches salary issues. I found their Web site, and here’s what they report:

The average American public school teacher, kindergarten through high school, makes $43,250.

Salaries vary from state to state, with South Dakota coming in last at $30,265 a year, and Connecticut leading the way at $53,507.

Is $43,000 a lot, or a little? I couldn’t tell, so I dug up salary averages for ten other professions. Here’s how they stack up:

Profession Average (annual salary)
Teacher: $43,000
Assistant professor: $45,000
Police officer: $46,000
Accountant: $53,000
Department store buyer: $58,000
Architect: $60,000
Computer systems analyst: $71,000
Engineer: $75,000
Attorney: $83,000
Full professor: $84,000
Doctor: $120,000

I can hear some of you out there saying, “Sure, teachers make less than doctors, big deal. Isn’t that fair?” Underpaid, overpaid, it only means something in comparison to how much a person should be paid, right?

But that’s a big can of worms. How much “should” anyone be paid? And how do we judge “should”?

What teachers deserve

Is any line of work entitled to a particular level of compensation? On what basis? Are there objective criteria?

I can think of three:

The amount of training needed for the job
The all-around difficulty of the work
The value of the product or service to society

If you use these criteria, doctors deserve tons of money. Their job requires endless schooling followed by a brutal internship … and they save lives. What could be more important than that?

Carpet installers, by contrast, don’t necessarily need a college degree, although they do need training and practical experience. If they’re good at what they do, their carpets look smooth and stay put–an important and necessary skill, but it’s not saving lives. No wonder doctors make more.

I think teachers are more like doctors when it comes to the amount of training needed for the job. Teachers need four years of college and at least one more for a teaching certificate, or two more for a master’s degree. Even then, in many states, teachers have to keep taking summer courses to hold onto their jobs. The requirements vary, but in California, for example, teachers are required to clock 150 hours of course work over five years–which they take in the summer, usually, and must pay for themselves.

In fact, teachers need about the same amount of training as architects, engineers, and accountants.

Hard work or hardly working?

I think a lot of the “overpaid teachers” talk comes from the notion that teachers’ hours match up with students’ hours: Put in six hours a day, head home around 2 PM, and take summers off. Compared to most jobs, that’s scarcely working, right?

Hello–news flash! Classroom time is only the tip of the pencil for a teacher. No one just walks into a roomful of kids without a plan and keeps them fruitfully occupied for six hours at a stretch, day after day. Lesson plans have to be drawn up. There go your weekends.

Then there’s homework. If you have 25 kids in your class, and each one turns in one page of homework a day, you have 25 pages to read and mark before tomorrow. There go your evenings.

Furthermore, you have meetings to attend–with other teachers, curriculum experts, administrators, and parents. Plus, when kids bring their life problems into the classroom–and they’re human, so they do–who ends up dealing with them? That’s right, the teacher. It’s not in the job description, but a teacher’s obligations inevitably overlap with those of social workers, therapists, and even parents.

In his book Small Victories, journalist Samuel Freedman followed New York City high school teacher Jessica Siegel around for a year to see what she actually did, and he found that this teacher put in more than 60 hours per week at her job. It’s anecdotal evidence, and maybe Siegal is unusual. But every teacher I talked to felt his or her work week extended way past 40 hours. Indeed, a national survey conducted by the Department of Education showed that teachers spend an average of 45 hours a week doing their jobs.

Saving civilization

Which brings us to our third criterion. How valuable is the contribution teachers make to humanity?

Never mind Mr. Holland’s Opus. Forget individual cases. Let’s consider the teaching profession as a whole. If doctors save lives, what do teachers do?

Well, let’s see. Everything we call civilization has to be passed on to the next generation. Isn’t that what teachers do? Reading, writing, adding 26 plus 13, calculating the boiling point of water and naming the vitamins found in carrots, explaining the difference between Turkey and turkey–none of this stuff is in the genes.

Without teachers, civilization would have to be developed from scratch every generation, and man, you can’t get too far in one generation. We’d still be listening to eight-track tapes. We wouldn’t even have cars! Well, I guess we’d have our parents’ cars, but we wouldn’t know how to drive them!

So yeah, I guess teaching is important work. On a scale from one to ten, let’s give it a nine. (Saving lives has still got to rank higher.)

One ballplayer equals 100 teachers? According to the latest edition of Jobs Rated Almanac, the highest-paid professionals in America are NBA basketball players. They average $4,637,825 a year.

In other words, an NBA player makes about 100 times as much as a teacher.

If service to humanity counts, why should ballplayers make millions while teachers scrape by on a few measly tens of thousands? What do basketball players contribute that’s more important than transferring the contents of civilization to the next generation?

Good question, but only because it illustrates an important truth about the compensation for any job. Clint Eastwood said it best in his movie Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

Why teachers make less than lawyers

The amount of clout is what it’s all about.

In America, teachers started out in a hole dating back to the 19th century. Back then, most schoolteachers were women, and women who worked professionally outside the home were mostly teachers (or nurses) because other careers were closed to them.

Those women were offered low wages on the assumption that they were not breadwinners supporting families. In fact, single teachers were generally assumed to be clocking time while they waited to get married. Those who kept working after marriage were thought to be making “extra income,” which justified paying them what amounted to pin money.

Since their options were limited, they had to accept what they were offered. Thus, the prevailing wage for teachers started out low.

Meet and submit

In 1948, when the AFT ran its first salary survey, teachers were making less than $3,000 a year–which is equivalent to maybe $16,000 today.

Unlike plumbers, bus drivers, and truckers, teachers had no right to engage in collective bargaining. Instead, they went through a process called “meet and converse,” which meant they would meet with their school board and discuss what they needed. Then they would go away, and the school board would decide what to give them.

But in 1961, a math teacher named Albert Shanker kick-started massive changes in educator compensation. As head of a professional association called the United Federation of Teachers, he called a controversial teachers’ strike in New York City.

The rise of clout

That strike gave birth to one of America’s major trade union movements. Over the next 15 years, teachers won the right to collective bargaining state by state. As unions took over salary negotiations, teachers’ incomes began to rise rapidly.

Today, 80 percent of teachers belong to one of two large unions, the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers, or their local affiliates. If the two unions were to merge, as has been discussed, they would form the largest trade union in America.

Today, teachers’ unions swing a heavy stick in national politics. They rank near the top in political contributions, mostly to Democratic candidates. Clout is no longer the problem for teachers–as a group, they’ve got it.

According to Judy Thomas, Director of Research for the California Teachers Association, teachers go on strike only as a last resort, in part because strikes are traumatic and tend to divide a faculty for years.

Slicing the pie

But the last resort has been reached frequently. The nation has seen hundreds of teacher strikes in the last 25 years. School boards, the opposing party in a teacher strike, don’t necessarily believe teachers are overpaid. They believe schools are underfunded. The size of the pie is out of their hands, though: They can only divide up what they have.

About half the budget of a typical school district now goes to teachers. Other employees get 30 to 35 percent. They include administrators, but also janitors, secretaries, cafeteria workers, school nurses, teachers aides, and so on. Well, schools can’t run without those folks either. If teachers get more, the others must get less. Or else the money must come out of the budget for books, supplies, maintenance, lights, and water.

A bigger pie

The other alternative would be for schools to get more money.

But where would that come from? Taxes, mostly. Other sources of public school funding are negligible–always have been, always will be.

In California, about 7 percent of the budget comes from renting out school property and the like. An even smaller amount comes from the state lottery, an increasingly common funding device that was pioneered in California. Today, the lottery provides 2 percent of school costs in California. But it isn’t the answer. The bulk of the money for schools–91 percent, in fact–comes from state, local, and federal taxes.

If teachers are to get more money, citizens must pay more taxes. That’s the bottom line. And a powerful current in American political life has been a demand for lower taxes.

If you start with the premise “taxes are too high,” the conclusion “teachers are overpaid” is virtually automatic. The arguments about why they’re overpaid come after the fact. “You can’t fix the schools by throwing money at them,” and its ilk are simply necessary fillers to bolster the premise that taxes must be lowered.

But it’s wishful thinking to suppose that we can have good schools without paying teachers good salaries. Comparisons to the good old days ignore the fact that times have changed. Back then, low wages could secure top talent because half the population was restricted to just two or three jobs, one of which was teaching. The best still had to compete to be teachers, and only the best of the best got in. Today, potential teachers–men or women–have so many other options that it’s the teaching profession that must compete, against other lines of work, to reel in the top talents. Otherwise, instead of teaching, those top talents might choose to be …

Well, let’s see: police officers, accountants, department store buyers, architects, computer systems analysts, engineers, attorneys, professors, or doctors, for example.

Check page one to see what that comes out to in dollars.”

Originally posted at:


I might add that my doctor at Kaiser doesn’t have to buy his own tongue depressors or bandaids. Teachers routinely subsidize the lack of basic school supplies out of their own pockets. They also contribute to their pensions and their health plans.

This issue brings up the oxymoron of the arguments attacking teachers. Complaints that they aren’t good enough out of one side of the mouth and that they’re paid too much out of the other.

So. You want the most highly educated, qualified and talented professionals but you want to compensate them less than any other comparable professional? Excuse, me. They’re already there. So you want to pay them even less. Less than a plumber, electrician or carpenter. That’s still too much. They have unions. So you want them to work for the same salary as the cashier at Walmart?

Keep in mind today that what you pay for education now is an investment in the future GNP of the nation. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s wage earners. And voters. Shouldn’t they be the best educated people we can afford? If for no other reason than that they can get high paying jobs, pay taxes and support a healthy economy? Do we really want to raise a generation of minimum wage workers?


Sad day for education

March 13, 2010

Texas Board of Education adopts textbooks that support a conservative Christian agenda.

1. The Board removed Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum’s world history standards on Enlightenment thinking, “replacing him with religious right icon John Calvin.”

2. “Teachers in Texas will be required to cover the Judeo-Christian influences of the nation’s Founding Fathers, but not highlight the philosophical rationale for the separation of church and state.”

3. Curriculum standards also will describe the U.S. government as a “constitutional republic,” rather than “democratic,” and students will be required to study the decline in value of the U.S. dollar, including the abandonment of the gold standard.

4. Conservatives beat back multiple attempts to include hip-hop as an example of a significant cultural movement.

5. The Board refused to require that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”

6. “Other changes seem aimed at tamping down criticism of the right. Conservatives passed one amendment, for instance, requiring that the history of McCarthyism include ‘how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government.’ The Venona papers were transcripts of some 3,000 communications between the Soviet Union and its agents in the United States.”

7. “They also included a plank to ensure that students learn about ‘the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.'” The Dallas Morning News noted that “high school students will learn about leading conservative groups from the 1980s and 1990s – but not about liberal or minority rights groups.”

8. “Board member Barbara Cargill, R-The Woodlands, objected to a standard for a high school sociology course that addressed the difference between sex and gender. It was eliminated in a 9-to-6 vote. She worried that a discussion of that issue would lead students into the world of ‘transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else.'”

9. “Members voted to polish up references to the American ‘free enterprise’ economic system and removed most mentions of ‘capitalism,’ a word that board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said has a negative connotation.”

10.”Board members also rejected requiring history teachers and textbooks to provide coverage on the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, while the late President Ronald Reagan was elevated to more prominent coverage.”

Because of it’s buying power, Texas dominates textbooks. So if a state cannot afford or does not ask for a specific edition, like California and Florida do, they will end up getting the Texas edition of a textbook.

Because educational publishing is a for profit private business. Much like testing.

Texas has overlooked one radical group.

School librarians.

The Texas board of ed does NOT control collection development in school libraries. And librarians can be a pretty radical bunch, being against censorship and all. You better believe the librarians are on this, updating their purchase lists and making sure what the textbooks attempt to suppress is widely available and advertised in the classrooms. They’ll also collaborate with teachers to make sure education is….fair and balanced.

48 of 50 states adopt national education standards. Texas and Alaska so far refuse. (Big surprise.)

Now I’ve looked at the national standards and I’m not impressed. California has had state standards for years. I’m familiar with the state standards. They’re rigorous. So are the national standards but not in a good way. Why? Because they reflect the weaknesses of No Child Left Behind. English Language Learners and Special Education students are still being held to the same standards as other students. No amount of “extra help” is going to help ELL students stay at grade level. Especially if they not only don’t speak English but perhaps their participation in school is the first experience they have had attending any sort of school. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the influx of all sorts of immigrants over my 30 years of teaching. I’ve seen children from Viet Nam who didn’t know what a toilet was or how to use it. Yes, literally. Teachers had to go into the bathroom and show them how to use a toilet. I have no idea what is going on with the Somali children, but I know for some of them this is their first experience in school. So what do you do with a third grader who doesn’t speak English and has never attended school. Exactly how much extra instruction in either English or Somali will it take for that child to test at the third grade level by April? Special Ed? Well, they’re designated Special Ed for a reason. They have learning disabilities. If they were at grade level THEY WOULDN’T BE IN SPECIAL ED! Duh.

Once more politicians are making decisions that are better left to teachers. Because what do we know? I only have a masters in education, a masters in library and information science, 30 years of experience and am National Board Certified.

Do I think there should be national standards? Yes.
Do I think it should be these national standards? No.

Now why are standardized national core standards so important? If you don’t control the standards, you can’t control the textbooks. Because adopted textbooks have to meet the standards.

This recent textbook adoption standard taken by Texas does NOT meet the national core standards.

Good luck with that Texas. How long will Pluto still be a planet in your state?