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Measuring a Teacher’s Worth

Friday, February 9, 2007

Public-school teachers’ salaries are not directly influenced by market forces, but rather by the whims of the political process. How should politicians decide whether to increase their pay? In an age of statistical manipulation and easy punditry, Adam Smith remains a trustworthy guide.

Despite his laissez-faire theories and his faith in the invisible hand, Adam Smith understood that a certain amount of education, provided by the government, was necessary to prevent the decay of the basic virtues upon which the perpetuation of democratic civilization depends. But more on him later.

It would be nearly impossible to tally the hours upon hours that teachers spend each week grading papers, reviewing the curriculum, and preparing lesson plans.

One thing’s for sure: politicians ought to be wary of prescriptions based on deceptive quantitative data. And they should be especially skeptical of the statistics in a recent Wall Street Journal column by Jay P. Greene and Marcus Winters. Beginning with its catchy but statistically meaningless headline—“$34.06 an hour: Underpaid?”—the editorial, which argues that teacher pay is high enough, suffers from flawed analysis on two counts. First, the authors ignore the fact that hourly wage is not a valid measurement of teacher salaries, since the vast majority of teachers are paid annual salaries. Second, they compare teachers’ salaries to those of all white-collar workers or even all professional workers, instead of comparing teachers with workers with similar educational backgrounds. More relevant data reveal that teachers are indeed underpaid relative to their peers with college degrees.

The estimated average salary of all elementary and secondary public school teachers was $46,597, in the 2003-04 school year. Those figures put teacher salaries just slightly above the national mean income: $37,900 if you include those 18-24, but $41,532 if you exclude them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But when compared with others with college degrees, teachers come up short. (All states require a bachelor’s degree of public-school teachers; a number of states also require a master’s.) According to the BLS, of those aged 18 and over, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree earned on average $51,568, and with a master’s degree, $67,100. That’s an average earning of $5,000-$20,000 more than our public school teachers.

The editorial’s most significant error, however, is to measure teachers’ work by the hour. A teacher’s work day rarely ends when she leaves the classroom. It would be nearly impossible to tally the hours upon hours that teachers spend each week grading papers, reviewing the curriculum, and preparing lesson plans. Hourly wage calculations are irrelevant to measuring teacher pay.

Admittedly, data based on annual salaries, too, has its shortcomings. Of course, teachers don’t work year-round. Many teachers spend the summer break creating lesson plans, brushing up on their field of specialization, and researching new teaching methods. Though, it is unlikely that they spend most of their summer vacation as such (though it should not be ruled out as possible). Since teachers do not log in their hours worked outside the class for overtime, the available data proves insufficient to fully depict how teachers are paid relative to their peers. Perhaps the conclusion as to whether teachers are sufficiently compensated for their labor will remain subjective, ultimately relying on how highly one values education.

When compared with others with college degrees, teachers come up short.

The question remains: So what if teachers are underpaid. Will higher pay produce better results? Unfortunately, existing data cannot answer this question since teacher pay is currently based almost entirely on seniority, not performance. The answer, though, seems obvious. Higher pay for teachers would attract highly qualified young individuals away from jobs in politics and engineering. It might even prevent some of those countless lost, bright minds from shuffling mindlessly into investment banking and financial consulting. Not to mention, higher pay would provide an incentive for the exceptionally well educated young teachers recruited by Teach for America to extend their two-year teaching stints into careers in education. With the baby-boom generation approaching retirement, the current teacher shortage will only worsen; the government ought to use higher pay to attract qualified replacements.

It’s worth remembering that well before The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that reveals his deep respect for education, wisdom, and virtue. But even at his most laissez-faire, Smith recognized the importance of education to a sound society, writing in The Wealth of Nations of the common laborer:

His dexterity at his own particular trade seems … to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

The column’s authors are right to criticize the way teachers are paid—based on seniority, not merit or performance. But prescribing a halt to modest raises in teachers’ already meager salaries is not the remedy. Ideally, the entire system of teacher compensation would be revamped to make pay more competitive. Given the clout of teacher unions, there’s no telling how long such sweeping reform would take. But until Smith’s economic theory hits America’s public schools, we ought to pay the utmost homage to the value Smith placed on education and respect teachers’ degrees, certifications, and noble pursuits—and thus their pay.


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