A recent Brookings analysis makes the assertion that American teachers are underpaid. That blanket assertion, however, is untrue.
The Brookings analysis compares teacher pay in the United States to teacher pay in other OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations. The truth uncovered by the analysis is that compared to other OECD nations, American teachers, on average, are paid less than teachers in other nations. The author makes pointed comparisons to Finland, whose teacher pay is still less than the OECD average, but significantly higher than the U.S.
But before you join in singing the sad song of the poor, underpaid teachers, consider the following:
- To put the international pay comparisons into context, comparing teachers from nation to nation is not comparing apples to apples. For example, as noted by the Brookings author, the teaching profession in Finland is much more prestigious than in the United States. That additional prestige factor in Finland contributes to a dynamic where college education majors are among the most highly academically capable students in higher education. In fact, the teaching profession is so prestigious in Finland that competetion for teacher education slots leaves even highly capable applicants on the outside looking in. Compare that now to the reality in the United States, where those accepted into teacher preparation programs across the country (including in my home state of Kentucky) post some of the weaker academic credentials of undergraduate students. There is no scenario in the United States where highly academically capable students can’t break into the teaching profession. While, of course, some of our teachers and students training to be teachers are among the academically brightest of their classes, that unfortunately is not the norm. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear from college education major or those considering an education degree, that they are considering or have selected teaching as a career path because their first and/or second choices proved to be too academically rigorous.
- Second, consider that in the U.S., there is tremendous variation in what teachers are paid; variation that a mean or median national salary wouldn’t account for. Within the same state (Kentucky), a beginning certied teacher with a bachelors degree and no experience earns a 9-month base salary of $35,493 in Carlisle County Schools, and $41,756 in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville); that’s a difference of $6,293 a year. The difference is even more stark for later career teachers. A certified teacher with 20 years of experience and a doctorate would earn $55,290 a year in Carlisle County, but would earn a 9-month base salary of $83,199 in Jefferson County; that’s a difference of $27,909 a year. That difference in salaries highlights just how problematic it is to say that all teachers in the U.S., or even all teachers in Kentucky, are underpaid.
- Further, consider that teacher pay in most U.S. schools is still based completely on teachers’ education and years of experience; not their effectiveness. Teachers unions in the U.S. have been incredibly resistant to reforms that would differentiate teachers’ pay based on effectiveness and/or their students’ performance. Teachers unions have consistently argued that teachers should earn the same amount in a school district regardless of what they teach and how effective they are. They contend that only teachers’ level of education and years of experience should be considered in setting teachers’ pay.
The Brookings analysis author makes the observation that increasing teacher pay could result in the profession becoming more attractive to persons who would not have otherwise considered teaching as a profession. I agree. But I completely reject the idea that there should be any across the board increases to teacher pay without reform in the areas I have highlighted here.