Are Public School Teachers Overpaid?


Are Public School Teachers Overpaid?

Nov 1, 2011 2 min read
Lindsey M. Burke, PhD

Director, Center for Education Policy

Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.

Are public school teachers overpaid? That’s the topic of discussion today at the American Enterprise Institute, where The Heritage Foundation’s Jason Richwine and AEI’s Andrew Biggs are presenting their new paper, “Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers.”

Richwine’s and Biggs’s research led them to some pretty interesting — and perhaps counter-intuitive — findings about how well public school teachers are compensated. For example, they find:

  • Public school teachers earn less, on average, than similarly credentialed non-teachers, but that “wage gap” disappears when teachers and non-teachers are compared using objective measures of cognitive ability, as opposed to years of university education;
  • Public school teachers earn more than private school teachers; and notably,
  • “Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent. Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid.”

While their salaries are comparable to “similarly skilled private sector workers,” when fringe benefits are thrown into the mix — overgenerous pensions, extensive retiree health care, and job security — public school teachers “make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”

Such findings are sure to draw the ire of public education unions. But how should we rethink policy with these new facts at hand?

While the authors find that existing teachers are over-compensated, we also know that there is a lack of high-quality teachers in America’s classrooms.

The lack of quality teachers, particularly in core subjects like math and science, has a lot to do with policies like “last-in, first-out,” step increases in pay that disregard excellence while rewarding mediocrity, and barriers to entry into the teaching profession. This last piece has created a system of credentialed elite, with union rules at times excluding the qualified in favor of the credentialed.

States and local school districts must reform policy (which will take curtailing the power of education unions) in a way that allows schools to terminate poor-performing teachers. At the same time, schools should compensate teachers based on merit — as does nearly every other sector in America— not on number of years in the classroom, paper credentials, or professional development credits accrued.

Once schools are empowered to pay teachers based on their merit — on their ability to improve the academic performance of children — they will also be able to reward the best and the brightest teachers. When pay can be differentiated, it can be differentiated to reward teachers who have demonstrably improved student performance. The Goldwater Institute has even calculated that a combination of salary bonuses and larger class size could create an environment where excellent teachers, willing to have at least 32 students in a class, are rewarded with six-figure salaries.

Schools must also be allowed to give non-teaching professionals alternative routes into the classroom. Florida has done this to great effect: the Sunshine State’s reciprocity policy accepts teacher certifications from any state in the country. At the same time, districts in Florida have created their own teacher certification systems, and fast-track alternatives like the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) are encouraged.

Rigid step increases in pay and inflexible routes into the classroom that prioritize the credentialing over the qualifications have not created an environment that attracts and retains high-quality teachers. In fact, it has created a system where taxpayers are on the hook for education employees who receive over-generous compensation but taxpayers are unable to reward excellent teachers.

We all have fond memories of good teachers and feel a debt of gratitude toward them. While some purported defenders of teachers may find Richwine’s and Biggs’s new findings provocative, they should be careful not to prioritize the status quo system over the teachers themselves. This important new evidence should inform policy moving forward so that schools can attract and retain the best teachers, giving many more children the invaluable life experience of learning from great teachers.

Lindsey M. Burke is a senior policy analyst in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Daily Caller