Education: The Cult of the Higher Pay

In the previous entry, I attempted to illustrate that many states with teacher salaries below the national average do not perform considerably below the states with high teacher salaries by an appreciable amount when it comes to academic performance and, in some metrics, the low-paying states actually perform better.  That was the broad stroke analysis of the teacher pay argument.  This article will deal more with the argument set forward by the teacher unions that the profession is comparatively underpaid.

First, no one begrudges the role and task of any teacher.  It is often a difficult job with many duties to juggle simultaneously.  Many times, the make-up of students within a classroom can have a profound effect on how that teacher performs and the level of education those students receive.  Unfortunately and for varied reasons, teachers are often not only educators, but surrogate parents and social service.  Some have to deal with students with minimal English language abilities, or with legitimate learning disorders.  Thus, it is not an easy task and no one on the Right denies these facts.

The problem is not with the profession or elevating it to the level of respect it deserves. To assert that teachers makes less than their counterparts in comparable professions- an assertion put forth by teacher unions- clearly misses the mark.  Their solutions are based not on elevating the truly good or great teachers, but in rewarding mediocrity or substandard performance through their collective bargaining agreements.  States often do not help the situation by establishing barriers- insisted upon by the teacher unions- to people wishing to enter the teaching profession.

The purpose of this article entry is to argue that teachers are (1) comparatively well-paid and (2) teacher unions are the party blocking attempts to reward the truly good teachers and deal with the truly not-so-good teachers.  As a conservative, I personally do not care if a teacher makes $150,000 a year- if they truly are deserving of it.  But it insults my intelligence to suggest that by virtue of having a teaching certificate everyone should make a specified amount of money, or that they should start at some base salary demanded by the union before setting a foot in a classroom.

The average worker works 2080 hours per year.  Let’s exclude an average 80 hours of paid vacation time from that amount leaving 2000 hours of actually being in a workplace.  The national median income is $51,939 for 2080 hours, or $24.97 per hour.  Teachers work 1,260 hours per year.  We arrive at that figure since the average day is 7.5 hours and there are 180 days in school year.  That makes their average hourly salary $39.70, which is 59% above the average worker in America.

Let’s compare that with another profession- one of life or death- nursing.  The average nurse’s salary in the United States is $68,910.  Assuming your average nurse works the standard 2080 hours a year (we all know they work more), their salary averages out to $33.13 per hour, or 16% below that of your average teacher.

It is also forgotten that teachers work nine months out of the year.  Hence, their monthly salary would be almost $6,000 compared to the nurse who makes $5,700 per month.  If the nurse worked nine months, that would be a big different story altogether and a nurse would consider that a huge bump in their pay.  The available data also indicate that teachers work 7.25 hours per day.  Within those hours, not all the time is spent actually teaching, thus the teacher-student interaction time is somewhere around 5 hours a day.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that average instructional time is 5.5 hours per day.  Doing some math, with an average salary of $53,585 per year divided by actual teaching time (5.5 hours x 180 days), we find that teachers are paid $54.12 for actually teaching.  But, the teacher union will say teachers often spend numerous hours at home grading tests and developing lesson plans and a host of other things.  Considering that they are afforded a lunch period and a planning period every day, one would think they could develop a week’s worth of lesson plans and grade any tests or papers within that allotted time.  Regardless, teachers are not the only profession that engages in off-site work for which they are not compensated and in many of those professions, they work 12 months a year, eight hours a day with only perhaps 60 minutes of break time with no “planning period.”  The union’s argument in this area is without merit.  The argument with merit?  Have teachers make better use of the time given them in school.

The union will also state that teachers often arrive early and stay later and there are some that do.  But for every teacher like that, there are at least two who will arrive on time, leave on time then complain they don’t have enough time to do what they are tasked with doing.  Additionally, many teachers are compensated beyond that specified in their contract for after-school activities like clubs, sports, or even after-school programs.

Further weakening the union’s argument is the built-in job protection features, namely tenure.  Teachers have unparalleled job security.  In effect, they are not under the pressures other professionals face.  As a result, on the flip side of the conservative argument, teachers are not rewarded for exemplary performance, nor are they seriously held to account for bad performance if they have tenure.  Instead, years of experience and teacher credentials determine their rate of pay.

Finally, some have mentioned that college graduates enter teaching when efforts elsewhere fail.  When one looks at the facts of teacher pay in the light others have presented as I have done here, their compensation squares favorably against other professions that require a college degree.  Something else must be the determining factor.  Instead, it is likely this tendency- forced by the unions- to reward collectively rather than individually that drives qualified people away from teaching.  Once again, we see that it is unions, not conservatives, who stand in the way of true educational reform.