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Teaching Penalty (op-ed)

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[ THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE EDUWONKETTE BLOG OF THE EDUCATION WEEK ON MARCH 7, 2008. ]


The Teaching Penalty

By Sean Corcoran

“I don’t see why a good teacher should be paid less money than a bad senator . . . It is unconscionable that the average salary of a lawyer is $79,000 a year and the average salary of a teacher is $39,000 a year.”
– John McCain, Republican debate at Dartmouth College, October 29, 1999

“We are going to have to take the teaching profession seriously. This means paying teachers what they are worth. There is no reason why an experienced, highly qualified teacher shouldn’t earn $100,000.”
– Barack Obama, from The Audacity of Hope

A charter school in New York City recently announced that it will pay its teachers a base salary of $125,000, with opportunities for extra pay when the school performs well. This announcement may come as a surprise to charter supporters who believe that charter schools are capable of doing much more with less, but the school’s founder Zeke Vanderhoek may be on to something.

A large and growing body of research has demonstrated that teacher quality is one of the most (if not the most) important resources schools contribute to the academic success of their students. At the same time, the average quality of teachers has steadily fallen over time, and an increasingly smaller fraction of the most cognitively skilled graduates are choosing to teach (for more on this see here).

Vanderhoek believes that significantly higher salaries will bring these top graduates back to the classroom, and he may be right. Economists have linked this steady decline in teacher quality since 1960 to the rise in career opportunities for women and the sizable gap between teacher salaries and those of other professionals.

Sylvia Allegretto, Lawrence Mishel, and I offer an in-depth analysis of this teacher pay gap in a new book to be released today by the Economic Policy Institute. (This book is in part an update of our 2004 analysis). The results are discouraging. In 2006, public school teachers earned 15% less per week than similar workers, a gap roughly one percentage point larger than in 2003. Only ten years before, the weekly pay difference between teachers and non-teachers was a mere 4.3%. But the 1990s economic boom largely left teachers behind, as average earnings growth for college graduates far surpassed that of teachers. (Average earnings plateaued after 2000, but the relative pay of teachers never recovered).

The recent slip in relative teacher pay is only a small part of a much longer decline in the attractiveness of teaching. Using Census data on teachers and other professionals, we find that the annual teacher pay differential has grown from parity (or a 14.7 percent pay premium for female teachers) in 1960 to a 20 percentage point gap in 2000 (or almost 30 percent gap for female teachers).

Our analysis is sure to bring out the usual “teachers have it easy” chorus, which claims that teachers’ supposed light work schedule and “summers off” adequately compensate them for their lower annual salaries. (See this report by the Manhattan Institute, for example, which argues that teachers are one of the highest paid professions). In our book, we take a closer look at these arguments and find they are mostly overblown. Either way, policymakers interested in raising the quality of the teacher workforce should be much more concerned about the big picture than petty quibbles over the number of hours teachers work each week or each year.

The fact is, college graduates weigh the relative attractiveness of each profession when deciding which line of work to pursue. And I’ve seen little evidence to suggest that our most highly skilled graduates are interested in part-year employment that pays low salaries and the opportunity to vacation or work at Sears during the summer. Vanderhoek recognizes that teaching is a profession that must compete with many others for top talent, and that the traditional compensation package has little to no chance of winning that talent over. His experiment is unlikely to change the face of the teaching profession overnight, but I think it’s a big step in the right direction.

Sean Corcoran is an economist who teaches at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU. He is a co-author (with Sylvia Allegretto and Larry Mishel) of The Teaching Penalty, a book from the Economic Policy Institute.


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