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).

How much US Teachers earn?

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.