FEW cliches permeate our culture more thoroughly than that of the underpaid schoolteacher. In fact, many people would say that if they know anything about public schools it is that teachers deserve far more money than they actually get. Thus, many will sympathize with this week’s vote by the New York City teachers union to hold a strike vote in a few weeks if stalled contract talks continue to deny them a raise.
But the idea that teachers are underpaid is a myth. When we discard our presuppositions and look at the evidence, it turns out that teachers actually are better paid than many people realize.
As of 2002, the average salary for teachers nationwide was about $44,600. That does seem modest. But we need account for the relatively few hours that teachers actually spend working compared to other professionals.
Teachers have long vacation periods, several personal and sick days and work a shorter day than most other professionals. We can only properly understand these hours away from work as a benefit of the teaching profession. That is, a teacher who earns $45,000 to work for nine months is clearly better paid than a nurse who gets the same salary for working 12 months.
Since teachers’ work schedule distorts direct salary comparisons with other jobs, we need to look at hourly pay.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average public elementary school teacher in the United States earns about $30.75 an hour. The average hourly pay of other public-service employees - such as firefighters ($17.91) or police officers ($22.64) - pales in comparison.
Indeed, teachers’ hourly rate exceeds even those in professions that require far more training and expertise. Compare the schoolteacher’s $30.75 to the average biologist’s $28.07 an hour - or the mechanical engineer’s $29.76 or the chemist’s $30.68.
Whose hourly pay is competitive with that of teachers? Computer scientists ($32.86), dentists ($35.51) and even nuclear engineers ($36.16).
Note, too, that these hourly figures exclude benefits, such as health coverage and retirement accounts, which are typically more generous for government employees, such as teachers, than for private-sector workers.
New York City’s teachers are especially well paid. According to the state’s school district profile, the median teacher in the city earns $53,017 a year. Unfortunately, information on the number of hours worked by the average teacher in the City is not readily available. But, if we make the generous assumption that the average teacher in New York works the maximum 6.6 hours a day allowed by the union contract for the full 181 school days, that works out to $44.38 an hour.
So, if teachers are underpaid, then workers in other professions are badly underpaid, too. But there’s no clamor to raise the pay of computer scientists, dentists or engineers.
But don’t teachers spend a great deal of time grading papers and creating lesson plans while away from school? Some do - but the comparisons here are still fair - because other professionals do work away from the office, too. Engineers and computer scientists are certainly no strangers to long nights working at home.
Nor do teachers spend all of their time at school in the classroom. In fact, teachers spend fewer hours actually instructing students than many recognize. Stanford’s Terry Moe worked with data straight from the nation’s largest teacher union’s own data - and found that the average teacher in a department setting (that is, where students have different teachers for different subjects) was in the classroom for fewer than 3.9 hours out of the 7.3 hours at school each day.
With several hours set aside at school for course-planning and grading, it strains plausibility that on average teachers must spend more hours working at home than do other professionals.
The myth that teachers are underpaid is a significant hurdle to educational reform because it helps prop up the falsehood that schools in general are underfunded. In fact, taxpayers spend more money on public K-12 schools than they do on national defense, even more than the Gross Domestic Product of Russia.
Yet, despite this generous investment, student outcomes as measured by standardized tests and graduation rates have been stagnant since the Ford administration.
If we are to improve public schools, we must understand that the facts don’t always square with our impressions. The story that on average school teachers are underpaid compared to other professionals is as widely told as anything from Aesop, and is just as mythical.