More pay: better teachers, therefore, better students. Wait a second!

By Eduardo Andere M.*

Discussion question by Cathy Rubin: “If we make teaching a more financially attractive career will it improve global education overall?”

Teachers are paid differently by different countries. Some countries pay very high salaries others very low. If we compare only statutory (compensations and fringe benefits apart) salaries for all levels of education (pre-primary, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary), Luxembourg and Switzerland, followed by Korea and Germany, are the highest paying countries among OECD countries. The Czech and the Slovak Republics are the lowest paying countries. (OECD, Education at a Glance 2018).

It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to make sound comparisons of teachers’ salaries among countries. It is even more difficult to correlate that feeble comparison with the performance of students. If we did that, we would have very awkward relationships. Let’s take for example a very high performing country in PISA, say Finland, and very low performing countries, say Mexico and Chile, among OECD members. Let’s then compare their statutory salaries, converted to purchasing power parity (a metric “that compares different countries’ currencies” with a basket of consumption goods; for example, what can a US dollar buy in the US and the same dollar buy in other countries like Finland and Mexico).

Let’s see the comparison of statutory salaries—in purchasing power parity (ppp) dollars—of Finnish, Mexican, Chilean, American, and Czech teachers. Let’s take the salary of lower secondary (middle school) teachers at the top of the scale in each country. Finnish teachers make $46,257 USD (ppp-converted US dollars), whereas Mexican, Chilean, American and Czech teachers make: $51,139, $43,760, $68,046 and $24, 901, respectively.  The OECD’s average salary for teachers at this level of education is $56,874. (OECD, Education at a Glance, 2018, Table D3.1.a. Data for 2017).

Well, as we all know Finland is the highest, or one of the highest, performing countries in PISA among OECD’s members. Mexico and Chile are the lowest performing countries. The Czech Republic with the second lowest salary among all OECD’s countries performs high in PISA, certainly, at a higher level than Mexico, Chile and similar to the U.S.  The Czech Republic students and the American students performed more or less at the OECD’s mean level for PISA 2015 for Reading and Science. In mathematics, the U.S. students performed below the OECD’s mean level.

At the same level of education and top of the scale, the Luxembourg teachers make the highest salary, $138,279 per year; the Slovak teachers make the lowest salary, $21, 225; however, the students from both countries performed more or less similar in PISA 2015. Whereas the Luxembourg students’ performance level in Science, Reading, and Math were 483, 481 and 486; Slovak Republic students’ performance was 461 for Science, 453 for Reading, and 475 Math, not very far away even though with the huge differences in salaries (OECD, PISA 2015. Vol 1, p. 44).

Then, what is the story behind the story? First of all, the statutory salary is just part of the story; there are other benefits that teachers receive that are not included in the statutory salary making the comparison extremely difficult. Second, even though the “ppp” metric tries to standardize salaries, there is no metric for the quality of the products in the basket of goods. The “ppp” metric measures the quantity of say milk, meat, public transportation or vegetables, but not the quality. And still, there is a totally different factor that is not captured by the international comparison, i.e., the teaching and learning environment.

Finnish teachers may earn less statutory salaries than the many of the peer teachers from around the world, but when one Finnish teacher answered my question “why are you a teacher even though salaries are not very high?” He said: “It is the package: The salary is good enough, the fringe benefits are good enough as well, social security is excellent, vacation time is wonderful; my children get to go to excellent schools free of charge, and the collegial ambiance and the whole teaching and learning environment in the school is wonderful.”

Of course, we all want better salaries. Teachers deserve high salaries. Their work is extremely important not only for the individual, community and national levels but for the global society and global citizenry as well. That is the extrinsic motivation. But core to teaching and learning, and the happiness of teachers comes from the intrinsic motivation. Why do teachers want to become teachers in the first place? We need higher salaries to reinforce, no to supplant intrinsic motivation; and also, in symphony with the intrinsic motivation and rewarding salaries, we need nice, collegial and positive learning environments in the schools and societies.

*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, and of Curriculum, Policy and Pedagogy in Finland: Meaningful and Interactive Learning in K-12 Education. Oxford University Press. New York. (Forthcoming, 2019).