Thursday, February 8, 2007

Some Facts Enlighten Discussion About Teacher Pay

Recently, the Tribune published an editorial from another newspaper that was critical of teacher pay. That editorial prompted several angry letters to the editor. So angry in fact, that the editor had to respond to those letters.

Teacher compensation is clearly a sensitive issue. But the debate usually devolves into symbols and assumptions. For example, commenting what kinds of cars teachers drive could be an indication that they are paid better than some suspect. But it could also mean that the teacher has a spouse with a good job that allows them to afford a premium vehicle. Or maybe some teachers chose to go into more debt and get a car they really can’t afford on a teacher’s salary.

Similarly, in this debate there are many assumptions. Teachers assume they work harder than people realize, but it may be they don’t realize how hard others work by comparison. Also, many assume teachers are poorly paid because that claim is uttered so often. But few ever really explain how a teacher’s pay compares to that of other jobs.

So it was interesting timing that we had this debate again in our local paper in the same week that the Manhattan Institute issued a report called “How Much Are Public School Teachers Paid?” You can read the full report for yourself online at

The focus of the report is to add some facts to the constant assumptions underlying the debate. The organization did a national survey of compensation of teachers and other professions on an hourly basis for more meaningful comparison. In other words, comparing annual salaries doesn’t make sense because teachers have more time off and often work on nine-month contracts. While teachers might argue that they work very hard during those nine months, often taking work home, the study considered that. They note that those in many other professions also take work home. I can attest to this point personally. Before I became a full-time professor I worked as a professional journalist and public relations professional. I would concede that hours worked in any job is not confined to time in the office, but overlaps considerably to the home, evenings, and weekends. The data in the Manhattan Institute report includes total hours worked for perhaps the most truthful salary comparison we have.

So, what do the numbers tell us when pay is compared in this equitable fashion? Here are some highlights straight from the report:

• According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average public school teacher in the United States earned $34.06 per hour in 2005.

• The average public school teacher was paid 36% more per hour than the average non-sales white-collar worker and 11% more than the average professional specialty and technical worker.

• Full-time public school teachers work on average 36.5 hours per week during weeks that they are working. By comparison, white-collar workers (excluding sales) work 39.4 hours, and professional specialty and technical workers work 39.0 hours per week. Private school teachers work 38.3 hours per week.

• Compared with public school teachers, editors and reporters earn 24% less; architects, 11% less; psychologists, 9% less; chemists, 5% less; mechanical engineers, 6% less; and economists, 1% less.

• Compared with public school teachers, airplane pilots earn 186% more; physicians, 80% more; lawyers, 49% more; nuclear engineers, 17% more; actuaries, 9% more; and physicists, 3% more.

• Public school teachers are paid 61% more per hour than private school teachers, on average nationwide.

• The Detroit metropolitan area has the highest average public school teacher pay among metropolitan areas for which data are available, at $47.28 per hour, followed by the San Francisco metropolitan area at $46.70 per hour, and the New York metropolitan area at $45.79 per hour.

From these facts, I’d like to make a few observations about the issue of teacher pay. One, I would stress that teachers should be well paid. I don’t even have kids in school. But as a citizen, I believe in the importance of quality education. Kids who receive a good education in K-12 will be more fun for me to teach when they get to college. Also, good education provides more labor for our local economy, and these jobs in turn lower crime rates. So, with education being such a vital social and economic factor, we should compensate teachers well for the influence they have.

Secondly, teachers ARE paid well. As the statistics show, when figured on an apples-to-apples comparison, teachers do very well compared to other professions. So I now have a factual basis with which to disregard any whining from teachers about not being fairly compensated. Especially when you figure that teachers in Michigan are among the highest paid in the country, and that the benefits package on top of salary is the envy of most workers in any profession.

There are many related issues in the debate about education. But the facts above speak for themselves with regard to teacher pay. I’d suggest all sides stop arguing based on impressions, and start with an honest admission of the facts.

Class dismissed.


Ginger said...

Where on earth could you possibly have gotten a figure like 36.5 hours for a teacher's workweek when working? That is ridiculous! Most teachers work 50-60 hours a week!

Tim Penning, APR said...

Perhaps if you read the entire column you'd get that. The figure is based on averaging hours of work over an entire year (not just the nine month school year). It is based on interviews with teachers and does factor in work at home on evenings and weekends. Of course, other occupations that are 12-month jobs also involve overtime hours. That's the point. Yes, teachers work hard. Who doesn't? Pay based on annual salary is a misleading metric. Comparisons on hours per week averaged per annum are more realistic, in spite of the emotional reaction of teachers.

Anonymous said...

I think you have no idea what you are talking about

Tim Penning, APR said...

How would you know? I do know what I'm talking about. I am currently a teacher and have been a "non-sales white collar professional" for 20 years prior to teaching.

So I can be objective and look at the proposed metric for equating the pay of teachers to other professions--hours per year--in a way that is both experienced and rational.

If you read the column carefully, you'll note I recognize the hard work teachers put in. But this 9-month to 12-month comparison is just not productive. Your points notwithstanding, yearly salary is not apples to apples when many teachers do in fact have summers off. I hear that all the time from friends and explain how much work I put in during the nine-months, what professors actually do besides teaching etc. The hours per year pro-rating is more empirical than emotional, and actually does a favor to teachers.

The MI figures are not "trickery;" they are another perspective. Teachers are supposed to be open to multiple perspectives, and when disagreeing, address the merits of the argument and not resort to name-calling. So the MI has a conservative bent? Long-overdue balance to the mind-numbing conformity of the liberal (yet reactionary conservative posture) of the teachers' unions.

Consider the proposal. Be open to different opinions. Don't just assume that people who disagree don't know what they're talking about. That would be....too conservative.

patmaloney19 said...

You have no idea what your talking about. When you speak of eduacion, remember teachers almost continualy attend school. By the ten or more years a teachers education path (Master's Plus) is much longer than that of a lawyer or a person with an MBA, both of which professions earn much more than teachers. Your lack of understanding is astonishing.

Tim Penning, APR said...

While some teachers get master's degrees, not all do.

An MBA is a pretty rigorous advanced degree. Many other non-teaching professionals get continuing ed as well that is unaccounted for with a degree.

The pay is based not ONLY on education and training, but on hours worked. The point of my column was to address this point--made by TEACHERS themselves to look at hours worked--and to factor that in on an apples to apples comparison.

It is YOUR lack of understanding that is astonishing, and quite frankly, tiring. Boo hoo that you have continuing education and work nights and weekends. MANY professionals do.

I've been both a working professional and an educator and really understand this pay question better than most. And by the way, try being a college professor, where your master's degree most often qualifies you to be an adjunct. A PhD is the minimum criteria to be a full-time professor, and then it is expected of professors to publish, attend and present at conferences, participate in faculty governance, advise students, engage in community service, and be excellent teachers on top of all the rest.

Yet, in my experience, K-12 teachers with similar years of experience make more than college professors.

Education myth buster said...

Researcher Jay Greene reports that the most widely held myth about education in America is that public school districts are strapped for cash. This is also the one myth "most directly at odds with the available evidence," Greene reports. And it influences the following myth, that teachers are underpaid. He addresses each myth:

"Few people are aware that our education spending per pupil has been growing steadily for 50 years. At the end of World War II, public schools in the United States spent a total of $1,214 per student in inflation-adjusted 2002 dollars. By the middle of the 1950s that figure had roughly doubled to $2,345. By 1972 it had almost doubled again, reaching $4,479. And since then, it has doubled a third time, climbing to $8,745 in 2002."

Now to the myth of that underpaid teachers:

"The most recent data available indicate that teachers average 7.3 working hours per day, and that they work 180 days per year, adding up to 1,314 hours per year. Americans in normal 9-to-5 professions who take two weeks of vacation and another ten paid holidays per year put in 1,928 working hours. Doing the math, this means the average teacher gets paid a base salary equivalent to a fulltime salary of $65,440. That's the national average for all teachers--more experienced instructors, and those working in better-paying school districts, make tens of thousands of dollars more, sometimes approaching the equivalent of six-figure salaries.

"Data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2002, elementary school teachers averaged $30.75 per hour and high school teachers made $31.01. That is about the same as other professionals like architects, economists, biologists, civil engineers, chemists, physicists and astronomers, and computer systems analysts and scientists.

"Even demanding, education-intensive professions like electrical and electronic engineering, dentistry, and nuclear engineering didn't make much more than teachers per hour worked. And the earnings of teachers are much higher than those of registered nurses, police officers, editors and reporters, firefighters, and social workers.

"Some argue that it's unfair to calculate teacher pay on an hourly basis because teachers perform a large amount of work at home--grading papers on the weekend, for instance. But people in other professions also do offsite work. The only important question is whether teachers do significantly more offsite work than others."

They don't.

"What's more, unlike most other professionals, public school teachers cannot easily be fired. Teachers have unparalleled job security because of the strong tenure protections they (but almost no other profession) enjoy. They face essentially none of the performance tests, work quotas, or pressures to produce that people in most other professions requiring a college degree do.

"Further, unlike other professionals, teachers are not rewarded for exemplary performance with pay raises because their salaries are entirely driven by their years of experience and the number of academic credentials they have earned. This leaves them with little incentive to do great amounts of weekend or overtime work.

"It has been well documented that the people drawn into teaching these days tend to be those who have performed least well in college. If teachers are paid about as well as employees in many other good professions, why aren't more high performers taking it up? One suspects that high-performing graduates tend to stay away from teaching because the field's rigid seniority-based structure doesn't allow them to rise faster and earn more money through better performance or by voluntarily putting in longer hours. In any case, it's clear that the primary obstacle to attracting better teachers isn't simply raising pay."

More from Greene here:

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