Low Wages Lead to High Teacher Turnover
To fix education we must invest in our teachers, not flawed studies
November 9, 2011
When I read the recent Heritage Foundation report claiming public school teachers are overpaid, my initial reaction was: You've got to be kidding. For anyone who believes that teachers are overpaid, I invite them to spend a week in the shoes of a public school teacher. If you don't know any, I know of several who would gladly volunteer to host you.
Do we pay our teachers appropriately for what they're worth to society, given their extraordinary work preparing our kids for life, school, and career? The average teacher salary in the United States—for about 15 to 20 years of experience—is about $55,000. To compare, the average wage for accountants is $64,000; it's $70,000 for database administrators and $75,000 for civil engineers. Teachers are not overpaid.
A day in the life of a teacher doesn't end with the school bell. After school, teachers attend professional development seminars and confer with counselors, other teachers, students, and parents. Well into the night, most teachers are still poring over students' tests and essays and preparing for the next day, and weekends and even holidays are rarely a "day of rest" from school-related work.
It's truly shocking to have to defend teachers' wages. Nearly half of all teachers leave the profession in their first five years, frustrated by the salary and/or lack of support. This turnover rate costs school districts $7 billion annually, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. Surveys show that two thirds of all teachers work a second job because they can't support their families on a teacher's salary. Meanwhile, on average, teachers spend between $350 and $500 a year—or $1.3 billion combined—of their own money on materials for their students. I know of no other profession whose workers subsidize their work this way.
None other than McKinsey & Company, one of the top management consulting firms, issued a report in 2010 on closing the talent gap in teaching, finding that improving compensation, along with better working conditions, could dramatically increase the number of top-tier new hires going into high-needs schools and school districts and—maybe even more importantly—could help retain them. The Heritage report's most misleading statistic is the 8.6 percent "job security premium" that teachers supposedly enjoy. Nothing backs this up; the truth is quite the opposite: 280,000 public school educators have been laid off since 2008. And if we start creating premiums, where's the premium for not having enough instructional materials for all students? Where's the premium for working in a school with deplorable conditions and overcrowded classrooms? Where's the premium for doing some of the most important work an adult can do—educating children?
More productive than releasing a demeaning and counterintuitive report would be to roll up our sleeves, invest in our teachers, and do the work necessary to ensure that we provide all our children with a high-quality public education system.