New Study Says Teachers Aren't Underpaid

A new report argues that educators make more than similarly qualified private-sector employees.

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For years, leaders such as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former first lady Laura Bush have said teachers need to be paid more. But researchers from two conservative think tanks say otherwise in a report released yesterday.

In 2003, Bush argued, "Salaries are too low. We all know that . . . we need to figure out a way to pay teachers more." And just last month, Duncan said in a speech at a Detroit school that teachers are "desperately underpaid" and that their salaries should be doubled.

In the new report, however, Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research argue that the nation's 3.2 million elementary and secondary public school teachers may actually be overpaid—by as much as 52 percent—based on their salaries, benefits, job security, and relative education level. The authors say that state and local governments may be spending as much as $120 billion annually in excess labor costs.

"The teaching profession is crucial to America's society and economy, but public school teachers should receive compensation that is neither higher nor lower than market rates," they write.

Among the key findings in the report: People who switch from nonteaching jobs to teaching jobs see an 8.8 percent wage increase, while teachers who leave the profession see a 3.1 percent wage reduction. Teachers earn, on average, up to 50 percent more in benefits than the average private worker.

Although teacher layoffs have hit many states, the report found that the average unemployment rate for public school teachers between 2005 and 2010 was 2.1 percent, compared to an average of 3.8 percent for workers in occupations with similar skill requirements as teachers, such as technical writers, editors, and architects.

Perhaps most controversially, Richwine and Biggs say that the average teacher has lower cognitive ability than similarly paid private workers.

The Heritage Foundation's Richwine said at a briefing that the paper looked at the average teacher—not the best teachers. "People who say they're going to be teachers score lower on the SAT and GRE, but then have higher GPAs [in college] than people in other majors," Richwine said at the briefing. "There could be an overestimate of teachers' market skills."

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union that represents 1.5 million educators, strongly refuted the report in a statement. The AFT said the report "defies common sense" and that teachers spend many more hours working outside the classroom grading papers, planning lessons, and attending school functions. The union also said that teachers spend money subsidizing their profession.

"America's teachers spend hundreds of dollars per year on classroom supplies for their students," the AFT statement said.

Meanwhile, states such as Ohio and Florida are considering merit pay raises for the best teachers, and many advocates for science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) education reform argue that teachers in those subjects should be paid private-level engineer, scientist, or mathematician wages.

[Learn more about teacher evaluation systems.]

A June report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that some 30 percent of chemistry and physics teachers in public high schools didn't have degrees or certificates to teach those subjects. Private-sector employees in STEM fields are generally among some of the highest-paid professionals.

The new report's authors say they don't recommend cutting teacher salaries, but they wanted to correct the notion that teachers are generally underpaid. Biggs, of the American Enterprise Institute, said at the briefing that states seeking to cut costs should consider cutting benefits or pay rather than laying off teachers.

"Does this mean we should go out and arbitrarily cut teacher salaries? No," he said. But reducing benefits or pay won't cause a mass exodus from the profession, he argued. "People worry that if you reduce these benefits at all, [then] all the teachers are going to quit. You only get high quit rates if they're being paid below market value."

He said schools should focus on setting pay to reward the best teachers. "The question is how should your pay structures be set so that you're rewarding the teachers you want?"

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