Teachers Make Too Much Money, Right?

A week ago, researchers from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (both free-market think tanks in DC) released a report claiming that American public school teachers, as a whole, are significantly overpaid.

Jason Richwine of Heritage and Andrew Biggs of AEI base the claim on their perceived market value of the average teacher, who, they say, tends to be at a cognitive disadvantage in comparison to their counterparts in the private market.

Teachers, many of whom pour their heart and soul into what they see as a thankless job, scoff at the notion that they're underpaid. They also understandably take issue with the assertion that they're essentially stupider than comparable workers in the private sector.

But after some reflection and thought, I'm not sure those are the most important points to take issue with.

The report brings up some interesting points all sides would do well to consider. Richwine and Biggs point out that test takers (across a number of tests) who say their future profession will be teaching typically perform worse than those who hope to enter other professions. They note that education courses are notoriously less rigorous than perhaps engineering or math courses typically are. They argue that because private school teachers make less, public school teachers are shielded from the realities of the free market. Lastly, they note that teachers who switch from the private sector into teaching typically take a salary increase while the reverse is true for those who leave public education for jobs in the private sector.

All this to show that school districts are paying teachers more than they have to. Richwine and Biggs would presumably argue that we could have the same quality of public teaching force for a significantly smaller sum of money ($120 billion to be exact).

The question at hand is what criteria constitute a basis on which to rely in determining the proper salary to pay a teacher. According to Richwine and Biggs, "public workers should be paid at a level commensurate with their skills.... Ideally, if a teacher's skills are worth $X in the private marketplace that teacher should be paid $X by the government." But are there other factors one might consider in determining the salary level of a given public worker?

Should we, for example, consider the inevitable negative reactionary costs that would be associated with the effects of students lacking access to teachers or schools?

Should we, for example, consider the piles of paperwork that public employees have to complete as a result of poorly considered and unfunded mandates?

Should we, for example, consider what it takes to love and care about children who lack experience with adults who love and care about them?

Should we, for example, consider what level of compensation would be necessary to draw "cognitively" talented individuals into teaching?

Should we, for example, consider the social irresponsibility that comes with taking advantage of committed teachers by assuming rational individuals will always seek the highest paying job rather than the job that brings them the most contentment?

Should we, for example, consider what price an effective democracy is worth, and that the private market would likely offer next to nothing for a committed educator to work in an impoverished community?

Should we, for example, consider that public services have long been provided precisely because the private market would not independently demand them despite their social utility?

Should we, for example, consider that the free market might not be the infallibly reliable tool for compelling economic and social justice many of us were indoctrinated that it is back when we were forming our ideologies as undergraduates?

I tend to agree with most of what Richwine and Biggs highlighted in their report. The teaching profession is not exactly teeming with would-be Stephen Hawkings. And the private market would probably offer a lesser salary to teachers than most school districts currently do. But you'll have to forgive me for distrusting a decision-making tool that offers billions of dollars for performing services with no identifiable social utility (the creation and management of collateralized debt obligations or the throwing of touch downs) and next to nothing for offering homeless people a way out of poverty.

The free market is not God. It does not speak with divine authority. It represents the billions of both good and bad decisions made by millions of consumers of our distinct culture (some rational, some not; some with means, some without; some who give a damn about a fair society, and many who don't; some on a whim, and some after considerable deliberation) on a daily basis. If that's the basis on which you think teachers' salaries should be decided, then perhaps we could be fair and ask only that your former teachers be the ones who suffer.


  1. People who leave a profession typically do so for one of three reasons: They were fired (or are about to be fired), they see better long-term prospects in the new job (personal, financial, etc.), or they cannot stand one more day in their current career field. You would not be surprised if people who are being fired take a pay cut, as they need a job. You would not be surprised if people who see long-term benefit from changing jobs take a pay cut, as they would expect it to be a short-term loss followed by a long-term gain. People in the third group simply want to retain their sanity.

    By the same token, there is a significant difference between changing fields and changing jobs within a field. If you are trained to be a K-12 teacher and all of your experience is as a K-12 teacher, when you enter another field you are almost certainly going to find that your experience is discounted by the employer and that, as a result, you're offered a lower starting salary than somebody whose experience is within the new field. No surprise there.

    Unless you choose to break down the information with some degree of granularity, you end up with a meaningless analysis. That may be fine if you're not interested in the facts, but if you are an "analysis" such as this is pretty much useless.

    I know a couple, recently retired, who both started their careers as K-12 teachers. The husband went to law school, became a lawyer, and made a high income. His wife joined his practice as... secretary/paralegal/accountant/personal assistant... and at least nominally made a lot less money - perhaps "less than a teacher". But together they had a lifestyle that worked for them, and income that easily exceeded the combined salaries of two teachers. I'm not sure how the AEI would have analyzed their situation, save for the (false) innuendo that the wife's career showed that she earned too much as a teacher. Frankly, had she been born a couple of decades later, odds are she would have ended up as an accountant or actuary.

  2. Aaron: You make good points. I'd also like to note that the study doesn't appear to differentiate between elementary school and high school or junior high school teachers (who often have different education backgrounds).

    From my perspective as a former junior high and high school teacher, most high school teachers aren't education majors: They're biology, history, English, or other majors, who get their certifications and decide to work as teachers. Although this is only my anecdotal experience, I have never seen a high school teacher (with a degree in a subject other than education) make LESS in another career than they earned teaching.

  3. The report from the questionable Heritage Foundation is another attempt to assault and divide teachers. (According to GuideStar, the Heritage Foundation “does not satisfy IRS Rev. Proc. 2011-33 for verifying charitable status and identifying supporting organizations.”)

    I’d like to posit the following questions to the so-called foundation:
    1. If we turn your report upside down, doesn’t it really conclude private sector employees are under-compensated? Shouldn’t they organize and demand the same amount of compensation as public-school teachers?
    2. In a free-market economy where college units all cost the same, wouldn’t students with higher cognitive-ability levels eschew the education major if teacher compensation is lowered? Don’t we need these people in our public schools?
    3. Aren’t a large percentage of teachers—about 70%--women? Might your report be just another attempt to continue to pay women less than men for the same work? Or pay them less for more work?
    4. If the average length of a teacher’s career is only five years, isn’t much of your data suspect?


  4. Hi, James!

    I'm sorry I've been so slow to respond. Lets do a blog post on a specific problem we've been having, discuss/share strategies, and ask others' opinions? Then, we could follow up on what changes we made and how they worked out.

    How are things going for you now? I hope better! I read your last post and I'm sorry that some of your students are disrespectful enough to basically vandalize your/the school's property that way.

    ...we're almost to Thanksgiving break!

  5. It would be interesting to have those researchers join my colleagues and I for lunch one day when we talk about how we can barely make ends meet as high school English teachers. Teachers overpaid? Sounds like a decision was made to say that with absolutely no basis in fact and then search for "research" that would concur with their "finding." Someone needs to go back to their teachers (who would get overtime for having to deal with those students again) and pay attention when they are told to have an open-mind before they start doing their research.

    Thanks for your blog. Thankful that I found it.


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