When the Media Asks "Are Teachers Overpaid?" Educators Ask "Are They Crazy?"

“Are Teachers Overpaid?” A few weeks ago, the New York Times invited five academics to answer that question in its Room for Debate section. Why would the nation’s “newspaper of record”  bother? Research has overwhelmingly shown that public school teachers are paid relatively less than comparable workers, that their wages have been declining for decades, that U.S. teachers are paid less than their counterparts in most other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and that low teacher pay hurts recruitment and retention. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for doubling the salaries of new teachers and says that professional pay is essential to recruit and retain quality educators.  A recent faulty analysis, however, by two right-wing think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute,  concluded, believe it or not, that teachers were overpaid in comparison to “similarly educated and experienced private-sector workers.”

The authors of the AEI report, Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine, participated in the NY Times debate to push their claim that teachers earn approximately 50 percent more than their counterparts in the private sector and that teachers receive salaries comparable to non-teachers who have similar SAT scores or other “standardized tests of cognitive skill.” However, “fringe benefits,” like “generous vacation time,” put teachers ahead of private sector workers.

Another contributor, Jeffrey Keefe, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, pointed out the many fallacies of AEI’s conclusions, which he spotlighted in a  formal review released last week by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).  Keefe dismissed AEI’s report as an “aggregation of spurious claims” and  cautioned the media that such “headline-grabbing” arguments will result in ill-informed and harmful policy decisions.

“Any discussion of teacher compensation should be based on high-quality evidence,” Keefe warned, “[The AEI/Heritage] report does not advance that discussion.” (Read the press release and Keefe’s analysis)

But what do teachers think? The news media often chooses to spotlight the opinions of journalists, think tank scholars, and others who talk about education policies – whether its teacher pay, the achievement gap or NCLB –  without properly consulting the real experts in the classroom. So NEA Today asked teachers on its Facebook page to respond to the New York Times debate. Some criticized a contributor’s lack of understanding of what teachers do every day. Others pointed out the misperception over “vacations.” Or as one respondent simply asked – “Are they crazy?”

“Please don’t tell me I have my summers off,” wrote Janet. “I spent all last summer paying for my own continuing education for an endorsement that will not get me more money!” Like Janet, scores of teachers use their “summer vacations” to pursue professional development and continuing education to further enhance their skills.

Barbara commented that even after 35 years of teaching and taking pay cuts, she still loves her job.

“While cleaning a drawer last week I came across a paycheck stub from 2008. After 35 years in the classroom my current paycheck is smaller than the one I found last week. I’d cry, but I’m so over arguing with people. Yes, it’s easily sixty hours, five days a week, but I’m part of what makes this country great. Every child deserves the best every teacher has to deliver.”

When they say that teacher salaries are above those in the private sector,” asked Karen, “are they taking into account the private sector workers with masters degrees, like many, many of the teachers I know who pay to earn said degrees but never get increased pay to reflect them? Even though states say they want “highly qualified” teachers, and require professional development and continuous education credits, but never provide the increased pay to reflect it?”

Matt echoed the suspicions many educators have had over the past few years in asking why such a question was being asked.

“It is because teachers and public schools are under attack from ‘reformers’ who want to see public replaced by private charter, with lower paid, little benefit teaching jobs. My question is are bankers, politicians, and lawyers overpaid? Where is the article on that?”

“Teachers make a bigger impact on society over a longer time period than many other professions,” posted Brenda. “Who in the future will be lured into a profession with wages that start low and fail to keep pace with comparable careers?”

Read NEPC’s review of the AEI/Heritage study

Read the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Review

Read EPI’s The Teaching Penalty


NEA believes attracting and retaining qualified school staff – K-12 teachers, higher education faculty, and education support professionals (ESPs) – requires salaries that are competitive with those in comparable professions. Low teacher pay comes at a high cost for schools and kids, who lose good teachers to better-paying professions. Learn more about how NEA advocates for professional educator salaries by visiting www.nea.org/pay.