U.S. teachers: Do they earn too much or too little?
By Eduardo Andere M.
The talk about teachers is a fad. They are the subject of the public agenda, the big and the small screens, international organizations, the media, parents, the public opinion, and politicians, of course. Around the world there are bad teachers and good teachers. For every bad teacher there are hundreds of good teachers.
What does the evidence say?
Mapping the global comparative education with OECD’s data (2011), the average U.S, lower secondary (grades 7 to 9) teacher, at the beginning of her/his career, makes $37, 595 international dollars (adjusted by the purchasing power), and at the top level of her/his career, 56 364 ID. Where is the U.S. in the world’s education map? Well, the OECD average for those levels are, respectively, 30, 216 and 48, 177. But the tops and the bottoms are dramatically apart. A lower secondary teacher from Luxembourg can make 125, 962 ID, and from the Slovak Republic 13, 864, both at the top of their career.
Earning more or less, according to the OECD does not buy PISA points. The U.S. students with teachers who earn much less than the Luxembourg teachers and much more than the teachers from the Slovak Republic perform worse in mathematics, better in science and the same in reading than their peers in Luxembourg, and equal in mathematics but better in science and reading than their peers in the Slovak Republic. As per the OECD global student, the U.S. student performs worse in mathematics but equal in science and reading. A more dramatic comparison comes from Estonia where the teachers make, at the maximum level of their careers 16, 985 ID and their students ranked, in 2012, at the same level than the Finnish students both in mathematics and science.
Where is the U.S. compared to the two consistently top OECD performers, Korea and Finland? Korean lower secondary teachers, at the top of the scale, earn 76, 424 whereas Finnish teachers make 43, 372. Both, Korean and Finnish kids perform much higher than U.S. kids, PISA-wise, and yet the salaries levels are so different among them, and yet not so different from the U.S. ones.
But life for teachers and students in Korea is not the same as life in Finland or in America. One has to be Korean, and Finnish, and American to fully appreciate the differences. Is a Korean salary too high or too low compared to that of an American teacher or the Estonian teacher?
Well, let’s see again at the OECD’s relative numbers; let’s look at the salary per net contact (teaching) time. Again Luxembourg is at the top of the rank with a salary of 115 ID per hour of teaching time, versus an Estonian teacher at the OECD’s lowest level with 20 ID per hour. The U.S. teacher earns 43 ID per hour at the lower secondary level against the 58 OCDE’s global teacher. The Korean teacher makes 78 and the Finnish teacher makes 69, well above the U.S. teacher. Again, this indicator is not an answer either to the best quality of learning recipe or formula but helps to locate the countries relative differences. Paying more or less per hour is not the explanatory variable, but it seems that the U.S. teachers earn far too little within the education league of industrialized nations or teach too many hours of net contact time, or have too few hours for planning, discussion and creating collective and collaborative professional learning environments.
How are teachers appreciated in their own countries? Are the U.S. teachers socially appreciated? For starters, one could go and ask people about their perceptions and get answers that mean very little in factual terms. Or we could go, and try to measure, albeit imperfectly, as the OCDE has done, the salaries of teachers in international dollars and compare those to the average income of the population. Presumably, if a teacher earns, on average, more than the gross national income per capita, it is said that the teacher is appreciated and vice versa. With this in mind, the most “appreciated” teachers from public lower secondary schools are the Korean ones with a salary relative to the GPD/per capita of 1.82 followed by the Mexicans at 1.78 and the Germans at 1.75 even the Canadians at 1.58. The OECD average is at 1.24 and the U.S. is below par, at 0.98 with lowest one being Estonia at 0.68. Again, teacher appreciation does not buy PISA points either, but who cares?
How have the salaries of U.S. teachers grown in the last decade in comparison to the global map? Well, salaries in the U.S. have stayed almost flat in real terms from 2000 to 2011 (2000 base=100). The OECD growth has been to 116 where as the U.S. has grown to a mere 103, well below Finland (109) and Korea (119).
With this huge difference in prices we will soon see the Gresham’s Law in education. If we couple the apparently low pay and low pace with high-pressure the system will collapse, or worse, will harbor low-quality teaching and a large number of depressed mentors.
The author is a Visiting Research Professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Human Development, and Education, New York University and author of Teacher’s Perspectives on Finnish School Education: Creating Learning Environments. Springer. 2014.