Each year, the two national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), release their surveys of public school teacher salaries across the nation. And each year, they take advantage of this opportunity to bemoan the condition of teacher pay. On the April 2002 release of the NEA's data, then--NEA president Bob Chase complained, "It's hard to convince someone to stay in the classroom when the salary is so low." Likewise, the AFT decried the fact that the average teacher salary continues to fall well below the average wages of other white-collar occupations.,, The average teacher, according to the AFT, earned $43,250 during the 2000-01 school year, compared with an average of $52,664 for mid-level accountants; $71,155 for computer system analysts; $74,920 for engineers; and $82,712 for attorneys.
Of course, the AFT has chosen the comparison groups to make its best case. Where, one wonders, are the comparisons with journalists, registered nurses, assistant district attorneys, FBI agents, military officers, and other not-so-highly compensated professionals and public-sector employees? Shouldn't the average pay of a high-school English teacher be compared with that of writers and editors? One could make a case that the salaries of high-school physics or calculus teachers should bear some resemblance to those of computer system analysts, but does the AFT believe that the appropriate compensation benchmarks for 3rd-grade teachers are the salaries of engineers or attorneys?
Nevertheless, data from the NEA and AFT are highly influential. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education collects few data of its own on this matter. For the most part it simply recycles these union data in publications like the Digest of Education Statistics 2001, a standard reference in which five of the six tables on teacher pay are based on union figures. On the whole, such data present a fairly accurate picture of teacher salaries at the national level and have some value for state-to-state comparisons. Yet they suffer from severe limitations when interest groups, policymakers, and pundits use them to make a point about how the nation values public school teachers.
One facet of teaching that the NEA and AFT, in their data and in their public pronouncements, routinely fail to account for is the shorter workday and work year. In public schools, the median number of school days is 180 per year. Add half-a-dozen or so workdays for parent conferences, professional development, and planning, and the annual work year for most teachers is still shorter than 190 days. By comparison, an accountant or lawyer with two weeks of paid vacation and ten holidays or personal days will work 240 days annually--nearly 30 percent more days per year than public school teachers.
The typical teacher also has a shorter on-site workday than most other professionals. On average, teachers report being in school for fewer than 38 hours per week. This number rises to 40 hours if largely voluntary after school activities such as coaching or club sponsorship are included. In fact, language limiting the number of hours that teachers are required to be in school is common in their collective-bargaining agreements, particularly in urban school districts. In the just-expired New York City teachers' contract, the contractual workday was just 6 hours and 20 minutes (including a 50-minute duty-free lunch). The new contract extends the workday by 20 minutes. In Chicago, the limit is 6 hours and 45 minutes, including a 45-minute duty-free lunch.
Of course, many teachers put in nights and weekends at home grading papers and planning for the next week. However, a job that permits relatively more work at home is typically more attractive (particularly to women with children) than one that requires a similar amount of work time on site. And many other professionals bring their work home as well. …