Voices in Education

Overpaid? A Teacher's Perspective on Compensation
For many Americans who have never worked in a classroom, teaching could look like a cushy profession: days that end at three; long holidays; a work year that’s significantly shorter than that in other fields.

As teachers, my colleagues and I know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sadly, a buzz-generating new report not only reinforces this misperception, but also makes the argument that teachers are overpaid by 52%—because educators are of lower intellect, and thus lesser value, than our peers in other professions. The study, by Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs, reflects our nation’s pervasive devaluing of the teaching profession. Rather than suggesting we pay teachers less, we should be discussing how to reform teacher compensation to reward the outstanding teaching practiced in many classrooms every day.

The report, published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, argues that when health benefits, holiday time, retirement packages, and job security are taken into account, teachers are actually being overcompensated, compared to our intellectual peers. Richwine and Biggs assert that “the wage gap between teachers and non-teachers disappears when both groups are matched on an objective measure of cognitive ability rather than years of education.”

I’m a high school social studies teacher in the Memphis City Schools. Recently, my colleagues and I attended a screening of the film American Teacher, a documentary that follows the experiences of four hard-working educators. As I glanced around the auditorium during the screening, teachers simply nodded their heads as their profiled counterparts spoke of 12-hour days and second jobs to make ends meet, of inadequate maternity leave policies, and criticism from family members for entering the profession despite receiving degrees from prestigious universities. Relating to the film’s teachers was easy; their concerns are also mine and my colleagues’. The face of the American teacher presented in the film provides a stark contrast to the coddled educator Richwine and Biggs describe and the general public perceives.

The problem with the Richwine and Biggs report is that it incorrectly diagnoses the problem as overall compensation, rather than the more nuanced and more significant issue of how that compensation is determined. The system by which teacher compensation levels are determined must be re-evaluated and reformed if we are to recruit and retain top teachers in the field. Personally, it is frustrating to know that my salary is not affected by my performance or demonstrated leadership ability, but rather by the number of years I’ve taught and degrees I’ve obtained. This compensation system marks the teaching profession less as a competitive and challenging field, and more as a marginally-skilled trade. Is it any wonder so many of our most talented college graduates want no part of teaching?

Another flaw of the Richwine and Biggs study is its comparison of educators’ performances on the SAT, GRE, and other standardized exams to “prove” that teachers are of inferior intellect to our peers in other professions. Of course we all know that the SAT is not predictive per se of one’s ability to teach, in much the same way it is not indicative of one’s ability to rewire a home electrical system. However, few would argue that the electrician’s services are not of considerable value because the electrician isn’t a National Merit Scholar. Based on personal experience, I would agree that education degree programs are less rigorous than those in other fields. Of my three degrees—political science, history, and social studies education—the education program was the least intensive. This program was graduate level, but the work required—basic recall of facts, short position papers involving little or no independent research, group projects with no practical classroom application—was comparable to what I expect of my high school students. However, this is a problem with how we train teachers, not with the intellectual capacity of teachers themselves.

Education policymakers should use the Richwine and Biggs report to fuel reforms in teacher recruitment and compensation. How do we encourage top-level college students to enter teaching? In other nations, teachers come from the top echelon of college graduates. However, our current system of training and compensation deters talent from entering the profession. As a college graduate, I initially made the choice to enter the private sector. Like many of my peers, I was concerned that teaching was not considered a respectable or profitable career for a graduate of a top university. Sadly, the reality is that until we again make teaching as desirable as accounting, engineering, and medicine, top graduates will continue to choose those fields over education. Reform of compensation systems to reward performance with competitive salaries, benefits, and lifetime earning potential is a major component of this much needed change.

The Richwine and Biggs report correctly highlights some barriers to reform, such as tenure, union contracts, “rubber rooms,” and lack of school-based control over staffing. However, their wholesale attack on the intelligence of those in the teaching profession and the suggestion that teachers are somehow less valuable than other professionals is insulting, divisive, and most importantly, misguided. Educators have an extensive and valuable role to play in the future competitiveness of our nation. However, significant reform is needed in the profession—and its training and compensation systems—to attract top-drawer talent. Richwine’s and Biggs’s commentary, while an interesting conversation piece, offers nothing to address the true opportunities that lie ahead in reforming our educational system.

About the Author: Jaime Siebrase Hudgins is currently in her fifth year of teaching at Raleigh Egypt High School, where she teaches US government, AP US government, economics, and world history.