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Is $34.06 Per Hour 'Underpaid'?
By Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters
Who, on average, is better paidpublic school teachers or architects? How about teachers or economists? You might be surprised to learn that public school teachers are better paid than these and many other professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public school teachers earned $34.06 per hour in 2005, 36% more than the hourly wage of the average white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.
In the popular imagination, however, public school teachers are underpaid. "Salaries are too low. We all know that," noted First Lady Laura Bush, expressing the consensus view. "We need to figure out a way to pay teachers more." Indeed, our efforts to hire more teachers and raise their salaries account for the bulk of public school spending increases over the last four decades. During that time per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled; overall we now annually spend more than $500 billion on public education.
The perception that we underpay teachers is likely to play a significant role in the debate to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. The new Democratic majority intends to push for greater education funding, much of which would likely to go toward increasing teacher compensation. It would be beneficial if the debate focused on the actual salaries teachers are already paid.
It would also be beneficial if the debate touched on the correlation between teacher pay and actual results. To wit, higher teacher pay seems to have no effect on raising student achievement. Metropolitan areas with higher teacher pay do not graduate a higher percentage of their students than areas with lower teacher pay.
In fact, the urban areas with the highest teacher pay are famous for their abysmal outcomes. Metro Detroit leads the nation, paying its public school teachers, on average, $47.28 per hour. That's 61% more than the average white-collar worker in the Detroit area and 36% more than the average professional worker. In metro New York, public school teachers make $45.79 per hour, 20% more than the average professional worker in that area. And in Los Angeles teachers earn $44.03 per hour, 23% higher than other professionals in the area.
Evidence suggests that the way we pay teachers is more important than simply what they take home. Currently salaries are determined almost entirely by senioritythe number of years in the classroomand the number of advanced degrees accumulated. Neither has much to do with student improvement.
There is evidence that providing bonuses to teachers who improve the performance of their students does raise academic proficiency. With our colleagues at the University of Arkansas we found that a Little Rock program providing bonuses to teachers based on student gains on standardized tests substantially increased math proficiency. Researchers at the University of Florida recently found similar results in a nationwide evaluation.
Of course, public school teacher earnings look less impressive when viewed on an annual basis than on an hourly basis. This is because teachers tend to work fewer hours per year, with breaks during the summer, winter and spring. But comparing earnings on an annual basis would be inappropriate when teachers work significantly fewer hours than do other workers. Teachers can use that time to be with family, to engage in activities that they enjoy, or to earn additional money from other employment. That time off is worth money and cannot simply be ignored when comparing earnings. The appropriate way to compare earnings in this circumstance is to focus on hourly rates.
Moreover, the earnings data reported here, which are taken directly from the National Compensation Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, do not include retirement and health benefits, which tend to be quite generous for public school teachers relative to other workers. Nor do they include the nonmonetary benefit of greater job security due to the tenure that most public school teachers enjoy.
Educators sometimes object that hourly earnings calculations do not capture the additional hours they work outside of school, but this objection is not very compelling. First, the National Compensation Survey is designed to capture all hours actually worked. And teachers are hardly the only wage earners who take work home with them.
The fact is that teachers are better paid than most other professionals. What matters is the way that we pay public school teachers, not the amount. The next time politicians call for tax increases to address the problem of terribly underpaid public school teachers, they might be reminded of these facts.
Mr. Greene holds the endowed chair of education reform at the University of Arkansas and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where Mr. Winters is a senior research associate. Their report, "How Much Are Public School Teachers Paid?," was released this week.
©2007 The Wall Street Journal
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