Pay Study Asks Wrong Question, Ignores Facts, Insults Teachers

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Teacher pay study asks wrong question, offers wrong answers, says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The following op-ed is cross-posted from U.S. News and World Report

By Arne Duncan

As hundreds of thousands of teachers take on a second job to make ends meet, researchers from two conservative Washington think tanks have recently announced an eye-catching “finding” that defies common sense: America’s teachers are overpaid by more than 50 percent.

The new paper from researchers at the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation was the topic of a recent Debate Club at But as several commentators pointed out, the study fails on several levels. First, it asks the wrong question. Second, it ignores facts that conflict with its conclusions. Lastly, it insults teachers and demeans the profession.

Instead of asking whether teachers are overpaid, the AEI/Heritage researchers should have asked what it would take to recruit and retain highly effective teachers for all students. Surveys show that many talented and committed young people are reluctant to enter teaching for the long haul because they think the profession is low-paying and not prestigious enough.

McKinsey & Co. did a study last year comparing the United States to other countries and found that America’s average current teacher salaries—starting around $35,000 and topping out at an average of $65,000—were set far too low to attract and retain top talent.

The McKinsey report found that starting teacher salaries have not kept pace with those in other fields. In 1970, beginning New York City lawyers earned $2,000 more than first-year teachers. Today, a starting lawyer there can earn three or four times as much as a beginning teacher.

International comparisons are equally telling. As Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in the Debate Club, “No high-performing education system has teacher salaries that compare as poorly to salaries in other graduate professions as they do in the United States.”

Money is never the sole reason that people enter teaching. But it is a reason why some talented people avoid teaching—or quit the profession when starting a family or buying a home. Other high-performing nations recruit teachers from the top third of college graduates. That must be our goal as well, and compensation is one critical factor. To encourage more top-caliber students to choose teaching, teachers should be paid a lot more, with starting salaries of $60,000 and potential earnings of $150,000.

Great teachers stand at the summit of one of the most challenging and consequential professions for our children and the country’s future economic prosperity. They deserve our respect and should be well-remunerated. Nevertheless, through tortured analysis, and in some instances a disregard of their own data, the authors of this new study reach a predictably contrary conclusion.

Traditionally, economists have analyzed teacher pay the same way they analyze pay in other professions—they have compared the pay of teachers to workers with similar education and work experience. Like many before them, the Heritage-AEI researchers found that teachers did indeed receive lower pay than similarly situated workers—almost 20 percent lower.

I agree that educational credentials are not the best measures of teacher effectiveness—but the researchers go on to assert that teachers should not be compared to workers with similar educational credentials because teachers do not score as well on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test. Setting aside the fact that the AFQT does not measure teacher effectiveness, it is insulting and demeaning to argue that teachers are not smart enough to receive market compensation comparable to their peers based on the results of a test that most of them took as teenagers.

The researchers also ignored a chart in their own paper showing that teachers have similar overall benefit packages to those of private employees.

Unhappy with those findings, they then exaggerated the value of teacher compensation by comparing the retirement benefits of the small minority of teachers who stay in the classroom for 30 years, rather than comparing the pension benefits for the typical teacher to their peers in other professions.

As Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out in the Debate Club, “nearly half of all teachers leave the profession in their first five years.”

Finally, the researchers from AEI and Heritage appeared to create out of thin air an 8.6 percent “job security” salary premium for teachers–despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of education jobs were lost in the recession and teachers continue to face layoffs.

By the end of this decade, more than half of America’s 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire. That demographic shift presents a stiff challenge and a special opportunity. States, districts, and schools have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to modernize the teaching profession and expand the talent pool. But doing so will require dramatic change in the way we recruit, train, support, evaluate, and compensate teachers.

I agree with the AEI/Heritage researchers on one point. If teachers are to be recognized and compensated as professionals, states and school districts must shift away from a blue-collar assembly line model of compensation–and do more to reward effectiveness and performance in the classroom. A performance-based compensation model will enable great teachers to earn more, justify higher salaries, and raise the stature of the profession.

Americans need and deserve an honest, open debate about the teaching profession, framed by evidence, not ideologically tilted studies like this one. The debate in Washington today should be about how to judiciously invest in education. How can we best modernize schools with crumbling infrastructure so they can teach 21st-century skills? How can we keep teachers in classrooms, instead of on unemployment lines? And yes—even when budgets are tight—how can we make teaching a more attractive career and elevate the profession?

The answers to these questions cannot be to cut teacher pay and put tens of thousands of teachers out of work. Even in a time of fiscal austerity, education is more than just an expense. It’s an investment in the future.