Comparable Worth: Salary Data Fail to Account for the Shorter Workday and Work Year in Teaching. Once Adjusted, Teacher Salaries Look about Right. (Forum)

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IT IS AN ARTICLE OF FAITH AMONG MANY SUPPORTERS OF public education that teachers are underpaid. As Gayla Hudson, a former National Education Association official, once put it, "Until you start paying teachers at the level that other professions receive, recruiting will be a problem." Some respected academics have argued similarly. For instance, Peter Temin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see "Low Pay, Low Quality" on page 8) claims that the opening of new job opportunities for women has drained the most promising candidates from the pool of potential teachers. In this view, higher pay is necessary to lure high-quality applicants away from more lucrative alternatives,

Most new teaching positions typically attract numerous applicants, especially in elementary schools, in subjects like English and social studies, and in the suburbs, where school districts frequently draw 100 applications for a single slot. But the mere ability to fill positions is a poor measure of whether pay is adequate. The question is whether salaries are high enough to draw applicants of the caliber parents and policymakers desire. Furthermore, the benefits of higher salaries must be weighed against the benefits of other reforms that the money could be put toward. For instance, say a school district could raise its average test scores by one point by spending an extra $1 million on teachers' salaries. But what if the school district could induce a two-point increase in scores by spending the same amount on nonprofessionals to tutor struggling students? Or what if reforms outside education, such as better prenatal care, incentive-driven changes to public assistance programs, or job training, provided mor e bang for the buck in raising student achievement? In either case, public funds would be better spent on reforms other than increasing teacher salaries.

The Evidence on Teacher Pay

A substantial body of evidence implies that teachers are not underpaid relative to other professionals. Using data on household median earnings from the U.S, Department of Labor, I compared teachers with seven other professional occupations: accountants, biological and life scientists, registered nurses, social workers, lawyers and judges, artists, and editors and reporters. Weekly pay for teachers in 2001 was about the same (within 10 percent) as for accountants, biological and life scientists, registered nurses, and editors and reporters, while teachers earned significantly more than social workers and artists. Only lawyers and judges earned significantly more than teachers--as one would expect, given that the educational training to become a lawyer is longer and more demanding.

Teachers, moreover, enjoy longer vacations and work far fewer days per year than most professional workers. Consider data from the National Compensation Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which computes hourly earnings per worker. The average hourly wage for all workers in the category" professional specialty" was $27.49 in 2000. Meanwhile, elementary-school teachers earned $28.79 per hour; secondary-school teachers earned $29.14 per hour; and special-education teachers earned $29.97 per hour. The average earnings for all three categories of teachers exceeded the average for all professional workers. Indeed, the average hourly wage for teachers even topped that of the highest-paid major category of workers, those whose jobs are described as "executive, administrative, and managerial." Teachers earned more per hour than architects, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, statisticians, biological and life scientists, atmospheric and space scientists, registered nurses, physical therapists, university-lev el foreign-language teachers, librarians, technical writers, musicians, artists, and editors and reporters. Note that a majority of these occupations requires as much or even more educational training as does K-12 reaching.

Government data on wages and salaries also exclude fringe benefits. …