Public School Teachers and their Pay

From The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann:

What do you think? I say they are underpaid in the cities, well paid in the suburbs, and woefully underpaid in the smaller communities outside the suburbs, that is, in more rural communities.

American public school teachers are paid far more than their smarts are worth.

That’s the provocative conclusion of a new study from two high-profile conservative think tanks. Researchers from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute found that public school teachers take home total compensation that’s 52% higher than “fair market levels” for professionals with similar cognitive abilities.

Unsurprisingly, their findings have riled the education world. “No, we do not agree that teachers are overpaid,” public school reform advocate Michelle Rhee told Politico. “Under the status quo in most school districts, good classroom teachers are not only undervalued in pay, but as professionals generally.”

Of course, this isn’t the final word on teacher pay. It’s just the latest word. Big sweeping statements about teachers being overpaid or underpaid are perennial in the think tank world. Here are four of the biggest.

This from Heritage AEI:

Heritage-AEI: Overpaid! Teachers earn too much for their level of smarts.

The StudyThe Heritage-AEI study seeks to correct what it sees as a major flaw in past assessments of teacher pay. Ordinarily, researchers like compare teacher salaries to what other similarly educated professionals make. Jason Richwine and Andrew Briggs think that’s foolish. Years of research has shown that education degrees are among the least challenging, they write, and higher levels of education don’t necessarily correlate to better teacher performance. It’s more effective to compare teachers to other professionals who have the same objective cognitive abilities. In other words, break out the IQ tests.

The Conclusions: What they find isn’t exactly complimentary. “Although teachers as a group score above the national average on intelligence tests, their scores fall below the average for other college graduates,” the pair write. Teachers, they find, also score lower on their SAT and ACT. Finally, they break out data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to analyze the effects of both education and IQ. When education is taken into account, teachers salaries are more than 12% lower than their peers. But when measured based on cognitive skills, the salary gap evaporates. Once you factor in benefits such as retiree healthcare and pensions, total teacher compensation starts to eclipse what others in their cohort make. To top it all off, teachers tend to take a pay cut when they move to other professions.

The Big Criticisms: Richwine and Briggs paint with a broad brush, lumping teachers together from across geographic regions and subject area expertise. It may be that math and science teachers are underpaid while gym teachers are making a steal. But their study can’t tell. The two researchers acknowledge that problem. Of course, there’s also some controversy about whether “objective measures of cognitive ability” such as IQ and the SAT scores are really all that objective. But let’s not get into the weeds.

Even if America’s best and the brightest aren’t becoming teachers, Richwine and Briggs’ concede that there’s a good argument for paying teachers more. As they note: “We have shown that existing teachers are paid above market rates, but recruiting highly effective teachers into the profession may require present levels of compensation or perhaps even higher levels.” In the end, they just want to see pay-for-performance policies. That puts them on the same wavelength as, well, Michelle Rhee.

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  • “I say they are underpaid in the cities, well paid in the suburbs, and woefully underpaid in the smaller communities outside the suburbs, that is, in more rural communities.”

    You must not be talking about the Chicago area then. Chicago Public School teachers are paid more than their counterparts in Lake & Cook county. (Maybe not New Trier and the like, but certainly N/NW burbs as a whole.)

  • Barb

    hmmmm—we are to be paid according to our SAT scores or IQ tests. I can think of many professions that are paid way OVER their “cognitive ability” as measured by these tests. I think we pay people as little as we can to get them to do the work. How much we value the work is the key. Our society seems to value entertainment above all else.

  • Robert A

    Public school teachers should get six figure salaries and the schools they teach in should be monuments of beauty and carry top of the line resources.

    Consider one or two of the most influential people in your life and I’ll bet one of them is a teacher.

  • Larry Barber

    If the only fair determinate of pay was intelligence, there is no simple language available to describe how overpaid corporate executives are (or their stooges at places like the AEI and Heritage Foundation).

  • DLS

    This is an uncomfortable truth for many. It doesn’t mean that being a teacher isn’t important. It doesn’t mean that teachers are bad people. But there’s no question that the worst students go into teaching (and journalism, if I recall correctly), and that very, very few teachers could command the salaries they currently receive were they to enter the private sector.

    People shouldn’t take that as a slam on teachers or teaching. But wishing it weren’t true doesn’t change the fact that it is true.

  • Robin

    In the rural parts of Kentucky teachers are extremely well paid, relative to the people around them. Basically if you aren’t a doctor or lawyer, the next best compensated profession is education. The dynamic is different in the suburbs and cities so I can’t speak as confidently into that situation…but in the rural parts of Kentucky (most of the state) teachers have no basis to complain about compensation.

  • Kyle J

    As in most other occupations, the good ones aren’t paid enough and the bad ones are paid too much. My intuitive sense is that the good ones greatly out-number the bad ones.

    To me, being able to remove bad teachers (and figuring out how to reasonably determine what constitutes “good” and “bad”) is a bigger issue than overall pay levels.

  • Robin

    Some research we conducted also showed that students who went “directly” into education with a degree like “Math Education” or “Elementary Education” had much lower cognitive skills and student outcomes than teachers who got degrees like “Bachelor’s of Science in Math” with a teaching certification.

    Basically the ones who headed straight for the bachelor’s in “X education” (and not into Arts and Sciences with an accompanying teaching certification) were some of the poorer students in the university, and it showed in their future students test scores.

    Dr. Eugenia Toma has done some pretty extensive research in this area for Kentucky, using data from our state department of education.

  • Kyle J

    Also: If the conclusion is that mostly poor students go into teaching, wouldn’t an appropriate response be to ensure that pay levels are such that more smart students want to go into the profession?

    This is, IMO, another example of a student conducted with the sole purpose of obtaining findings consistent with a particular ideological view of the world.

  • Percival

    Poor teachers are paid too much and good ones are not paid enough. Unfortunately, the teachers’ unions and the current public school systems stand in the way of changing that.

  • 1) Salaries are supply and demand, just like everything else. My field is paid well because there are relatively few people trained to do my job compared to the need for people.

    2) There are certainly exceptions, but in college the people I knew who were education majors (as opposed to, eg, BA math majors who were planning to teach) went there after failing in another major.

    3) I was much more sympathetic toward teachers and salaries before I had kids in school. Seeing how much time my children spend coloring and gluing at school (2, 1, k) makes me doubt our teachers and educational system in general.

  • Kris

    My wife substitute taught in the Bronx and had the option going full-time. From what she told me, teachers in the city are compensated quite well as it reflects a higher cost of living and the demands of working in the public schools in at-risk neighborhoods. On the other hand, in the rural area where I went to middle and high school, our teachers in my view had great benefits including some of the best healthcare in the State and unnecessary perks added on like 12 free massages every year.

    As a full-time Christian worker that has to raise support, I don’t see what the fuss is. I am not aware of any teaching position in the U.S. in the public school system where an individual with a Master’s degree on the tenure track would have a tough time living a comfortable life if they were financially responsible.

    On the other hand, I would say other positions in public service like that of police officer or firefighter are underpaid considering the demands of the job. I think teachers do quite well.

  • Matt K

    I’d guess that the problem is exacerbated by the typical raise schedule in most school districts: new teachers, however smart and hard-working they are, do not make very much. If they stick around their district for 10 years or so, their pay graduates handsomely (and seemingly without consideration of their skill). Young, good teachers get impatient and see that their smarts can get them better pay in other fields, while mediocre teachers who are willing to hang on and hold out will eventually become overpaid. Also, compounding the problem is that graduate degrees in education can bump teachers up into higher salaries, and as a result institutions of higher-education have created “diploma mills” for these teachers to get masters degrees with little trouble or effort.

    I’m not sure how one would do it fairly, but a better “merit-based” pay scale less contingent on longevity might be a corrective.


    “…reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots…”

  • Jason Lee

    The problem is that teacher pay isn’t high enough in comparison to teacher’s low status. If we want to attract more talent and raise training levels higher, we need to both have consistently high pay and give much greater status to the teaching profession. The latter is a big cultural problem Americans have that will be difficult to turn around.

    Countries with high national educational achievement give high prestige and pay to teachers. They also have more training (eg, in Finland). Plain and simple.

    By the looks of some of the teacher-devaluing comments here, it’s no surprise that on average the American teaching profession isn’t attracting top talent. Who would want to be devalued all their working life?

  • Jacob

    My daughter attends what is arguably the top college-prep private school in this state, whether measured by SATs or the cost of tuition. Yet her (superb) teachers are paid less and have fewer benefits than they would if they taught in public schools.

    They teach there not because of money, but because they love to teach in an environment totally focused on academic excellence and with few if any discipline problems.

    If jobs were all about money, everyone reading this would have an MBA in Finance and be working on Wall Street.

  • DLS

    ” and give much greater status to the teaching profession. The latter is a big cultural problem Americans have that will be difficult to turn around.

    – I disagree. This is a problem that teachers created for themselves, and it’s why people generally don’t see them as ‘professionals’. Professionals do not shut down governments in order to get raises. Professionals do not have protections against firing. Can anyone envision a group of engineers marching on a state capital demanding more pay? When teachers rid themselves of unions, and begin acting like actual professionals, I think that the American public will follow suit and begin seeing them as such.

  • My wife is a teacher, my mother in law is a just recently retired principal. My mom and 2 of my sister in laws have been teachers.

    Here are what I see as problems in salaries.

    1) They are entirely based on longevity and education. My wife is nationally certified (a very demanding and proven form of certification that has very high results for students.) Over the past couple years the bonus that she had for teaching in low income, high risk schools has disappeared because of budget issues, in spite of the fact that this is actually shown to get high performing teachers to the schools where they can do the most good.

    2) Performance has no relationship to pay. But I have seen no method where pay and performance make sense. If you give low performing students to good teachers, you cannot compare the teacher’s performance to teachers that teach high performing students. School performance doesn’t really address the pay for performance issue either. Even comparing student to their own performance doesn’t work all that well (although it is better) because students of different abilities can be expected to learn at different rates. Also it is clear from watching teachers elect “Teacher’s of the Year” that neither principals or other teachers are all that objective in rating teachers. It is far more about personality and/or cooperation than actual performance.

    3) Time and performance are related. Good teachers put in a lot of time in and out of school. But pay is salary related. So many good teachers work 10-12 hour days and many mediocre teachers work 6-8 hour days and both sets of teachers get paid the same.

  • Rick

    As a teacher, I would say that something was left out of this study. Classroom control. A successful teacher must be able to control the classroom. I am a music teacher. k-12. I do general, chorus and band. I am the exception to the study in that I have a high IQ and did very well on my ACT’s. However, I took a 16 year break from teaching because I could not control the classroom. It doesn’t take rocket science to teach a 3rd grader how to read. I can pass the test to be a regular class room teacher with no problem. Controlling that class is another issue. There are not enough teachers who can control a classroom. Keeping the students focused and on task is a talent. I am replacing a teacher who did not have the gift. The music program is a mess. She was a talented musician, but she could not control the classroom.
    The study talks about the smarts and pay. I’d love to see some of those who are “smarter” walk into a classroom for 8 hours a day and manage that room. Being smarter doesn’t always help with that.
    Oh….and I think I am underpaid. :), but don’t we all? But I think I really am underpaid more that most people, but don’t we all? lol

  • DLS, most people think that the problem is unions. But several states, like Georgia, do not allow teachers to unionize. GA as a non-union state has one of the lowest performance rates in the country. Union are an issue, I am not going to say they are not. But the issues exist outside the union system at about the same levels, so I don’t think that unions are the primary problem.

  • DLS

    I do agree that GA has many other problems, Adam 🙂

  • 🙂

    Firing teachers is problem, not matter where you are at. My wife’s district, a fairly large suburban district in an overwhelmingly Republican area, in a non-union state still only fires about 25-30 teachers a year for cause (I think I am rounding up) out of about 7000 classroom teachers. So even without unions, schools are not firing teachers for cause. And out of the few that I know about, the teachers were more likely to be fired because of personality issues with the principal than actually being bad teachers.

  • dopderbeck

    This is libertarian / Ayn Randian horse-hockey.

    “Of course, there’s also some controversy about whether “objective measures of cognitive ability” such as IQ and the SAT scores are really all that objective. But let’s not get into the weeds.”

    Um… these aren’t “weeds,” they’re the heart of the issue.

    Do “IQ tests” and SAT scores measure the emotional intelligence and virtues of love and patience required to deal with a room full of first graders? Of course not. What a load of balderdash.

    And anyone who thinks a public school teacher can “comfortably” support a family on that salary alone is living on mars.

  • Robin


    Your last statemetnt “And anyone who thinks a public school teacher can comfortable support a family on that salary alone is living on mars” depends very much on the situation.

    In Louisville we have teacher’s (full-time, regular high school teachers) whose salaries range from $37,000 to $87,000. Median HOUSEHOLD income in Louisville is $39,457

    So yes, an entry level teacher in Louisville should be able to live comfortably, since their individual income is roughly equivalent to household income for the rest of the community. And some of the more experienced teachers make, as an individual, more than 200% of median household income. Kentucky, in general, is a lucrative place to be a teacher (relative to other professions).

  • anon

    All I know is that they do better than most pastors and seminary professors!

  • dopderbeck

    Robin (#24) — but all that demonstrates is that it’s hard for ANYONE to find work that allows them to provide comfortably for a family in Louisville.

  • RobS

    Lots of variables. Most teachers would probably be pretty pleased with a reasonable salary (even the one they have now) if they had parents & administrators supporting them. With engaged parents and administrators helping them take care of the problems, just given the ability to go and do the real teaching might be a joy.

    Robin, to your comments on Louisville, one thing I’d wonder is if the teachers earning the pay you described have 10-12 weeks (or more) of vacation time for their salary as well? No doubt teachers can work extra hours (as can any profession), but at higher levels, they often get a planning period, etc, and are not stuck just teaching for much more than 5-6 hours per day.

    The biggest challenge I think is separating the great, the good, and the ineffective so that improvements (or pay adjustments) might be made. The unions often are against rewarding their top performers that way.

  • Tom F.

    I think that being a teacher is more stressful than other jobs of similar cognitive ability. You basically have three main bosses, the administration, the students, and the parents. If any of these constituencies starts to have a problem with you, than they will let you know it and loudly. Most other jobs have one or maybe two bosses. So even if the intelligence testing is the same, the stress level is much, much higher.

  • Brian

    Baltimore City pays higher than any of the surrounding suburban counties.

    As for bad teachers entering the profession, I lay part of the blame of the graduate level education programs that are out there. Many of them are merely degree mills, even if they are from otherwise reputable schools. Remember, teacher state certification in almost all states are linked to grant money from the federal level. There are many schools profiting from this as well.

  • Steph

    Do we tie pay to IQ? To GPA? To the difficulty of the field of study? To the hours put in? To experience? To results? To the attainment of an advanced degree? To the difficulty of attracting employees? To the availability/shortage of qualified employees, with salaries rising and falling as availability/shortages change?

    I have a BA in English (with a secondary education concentration, almost a double major) and an MA in English. My GPA was 3.9 in college (Houghton) and 4.0 at NCSU for my MA. Should I be paid better than someone who had a lower GPA? [In my brief teaching experience (a few years), my GPA seemed irrelevant to my performance in the classroom….] In what profession is that pay scale practiced? Should I be paid more or less than someone who went to an easier or harder college? Private companies employing headhunters might offer a higher salary to someone with a top GPA from an Ivy league college, but in education, as state employees, that option does not exist. Teachers stand or fall together, salary-wise.

    How does my 4.0 GPA in English compare to a lower GPA in physics?

    Does anyone feel qualified to play this game and make those calls?

    Should an English teacher with 100+ students and 100+ long papers to read, evaluate, conference on, comment on, re-read, and grade be paid more than someone whose subject matter doesn’t require the same degree of … effort?

    Should an English teacher who spends more time commenting on papers than another English teacher who slaps a grade on papers be paid more?

    Should someone who puts in the hours needed to come up with creative materials rather than canned materials be paid more?

    Do we reward intelligence, or time invested? Normally, pay is compensation for time invested, not how smart you are (Yes, I know, summers off….. Grueling pace the rest of the time, at least in my experience.) Even in the case of doctors, for example, I am not sure we are rewarding intelligence but rather time invested in studies and wealth of knowledge … not the same thing as intelligence.

    And so, we fall back on pay scales based on degree attained and experience level, not GPA or relative difficulty of the course of study. If you are going to justify paying teachers less b/c of IQ/standardized test results, you should take the next step and differentiate pay based on those factors among education professionals as well. That is scandalous. What profession determines your pay potential and sets a pay scale based on IQ, comparing one employee to another on that basis?

    Finally, do we increase pay because of the stress level involved in a job? I’m thinking of Scot’s summary of his view. Is that what is behind your desire to pay inner city teachers more, Scot? Could you elaborate? I don’t object, BTW. But we do need to know what we are rewarding with higher dollar figures, however. What’s your take?)

    Disclosure: I am no longer a teacher and wasn’t for all that long. I am a stay-at-home mom.

  • Diane


    While I am in agreement with you that teachers not overpaid, I think one of the huge disconnects in this country is cost of living in different regions. Three years ago our family moved from an area of the country with a very high (actually the highest) cost of living to the midwest, not far from where Robin is talking about. Yes, you can live comfortably (not grandly) on 40K a year in a place where you can buy a decent house for 50k and a nice house for 80K and where taxes are very low, where there are, no parking costs, chain restaurants discount deeply to get customers, expensive tutoring for kids is extremely rare, private schools start at 2K a year and there’s basically not a culture of ostentatious spending. Where I came from, with a decent house starting at $400K and the “new normals” of living quite expensive, you could hardly blow your nose on 40K a year. Why there are these differentials in this country is another question, and how they skew politics yet another … but there it is, startling but true.

  • Tim

    1. I’d ask Richwine and Briggs to name a school district and a teacher position that is overpaid.

    2. Then I’d send Richwine and Briggs to teach and work in that district for one year.

    3. Then I’d ask Richwine and Briggs what they learned.

    4. At the same time, have two teachers work on a study like Richwine and Briggs work on for one year at their salary.

    5. At the end of the year, ask the teachers what they’ve learned

    It is easier to criticize people who are struggling (as Job’s friends did) than it is to understand those who are struggling in these difficult times.

  • dopderbeck

    Diane (#31) — there is nowhere in America where you can buy a “decent” or “nice” house, in a safe neighborhood for children, for 50-80K. Well, maybe there are a few places, but not many. Google “Louisville real estate” and tell me what you find for $50K.

    Maybe — maybe — you can rent for a while with that kind of money. But is this what we want? A society in which the people who are educating our children have to scrape by?

  • DLS


    “My GPA was 3.9 in college (Houghton) and 4.0 at NCSU for my MA. Should I be paid better than someone who had a lower GPA?

    – Yes, because it’s simply much easier to get high grades in education than many other fields. That ‘s part of the point of the study.

    “How does my 4.0 GPA in English compare to a lower GPA in physics?”

    – A 4.0 GPA in English is simply not even remotely as difficult to obtain as a comprable (or somewhat lower) GPA in physics. Like it or not, there are real differences among majors, classes and the quality of students in these fields. I say that as someone with one social science degree myself, which I fully acknowledge was not even remotely as hard as some of the hard sciences or other majors.

    The rest of your comments go to the lack of market forces in education. If salaries were truly set by the market, no one could complain the teachers were overpaid. They aren’t. Thus, your concerns are the same as my concerns. Pay simply is not set by a teacher’s quality, or hours put in, or success, or innovation. That’s why you can’t compare it to other professions, where compensation IS driven by market forces, and thus all those things are contemplated for the most part.

  • Craig Wright

    At the end of my 37 years of public school teaching, I saw the profession as Content (you have to know your stuff), Communication (you have to be able to explain it so the students get it), and Character (the students have to know you care). IQ and college GPA are somewhat related to content, but how do you place a value on the innate ability to communicate in an effective and interesting manner, and have the character to take on the challenges of dealing with large groups of people in a sincere, caring manner? I taught both 5th grade and high school algebra and geometry. That is a big difference in level of content, but the other skills and virtues are invaluable.

  • I think we over assume market forces. No one that i know would admit that there is not a weak link in their team or industry. There are always people that don’t pull their share, that suck up to the boss, but don’t really do their job, that get by with just enough. If it happens in the business world where the market forces are supposed to eliminate that sort of thing, why would it not happen in the gov’t/non-profit world.

    Is teaching really all that different?

  • Craig Wright

    Since I retired, I now substitute in my old high school. Having a major in English and a bilingual competency certificate, I taught 5th grade for many years. I obtained a math supplementary credential, and at the end of my career taught high school algebra and geometry. I can walk into almost any class in the high school and look at the teacher’s lesson plans and teach it that day. I do realize that most of the English, history, and elective teachers could not teach the math classes. On the the other hand, those teachers who have higher content level classes (such as calculus, chemistry, or physics) are not dealing with many behavioral and social issues. Some teachers have more difficult assignments than others, depending on which factors you are taking into account, and obviously, some are doing a better job than others.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    How about looking at this post alongside the previous post on student loans? Where would teacher education play out according to Scot’s suggestion? What would happen to teacher education?
    Randy Gabrielse

  • Jason Lee

    But DLS, the countries where children perform the best are those countries where teachers have robust unions. You seem to be equating a sense of American individualism with being in a profession worthy of respect. I see no reason to make such an assumption and the cross-national evidence contradicts your claims.

  • Jason Lee

    dopderbeck @ 23 brings up a key point. “Intelligence” measures only tell a small part of the story. Plenty of smart people are self-serving careerists, ethically deficient, and have poor social and communication skills. Too bad the study didn’t include measures of these sorts of capabilities. It would be interesting to have a study where intelligence, ethics, social skills, and communication skills were all measured. This might draw our attention to ethics deficits in certain professions that wield enormous power in society. I hypothesize that bankers would, on average, score low on ethics.

  • Steph

    To DLS 34,

    Physics versus English: Yes, that was my point. The only measure of intelligence I can offer for myself is how I did in college. My point was that if you are going to correlate salary and intelligence in the context of a school system, you are going to have to find a way to differentiate between top grades in English and top grades in physics … or average grades in physics and top grades in English. And do so for every subject matter. But ultimately we all end up doing the same job. We are given a classroom and students. And the subject matters that require the most out-of-classroom prep and grading work may not be the hard core science classes where (presumably) the smartest teachers would be…. More work for less pay?

    So, in this pay for intelligence scheme, if it’s really a valid way to think about salaries, let’s work out the details….

    Regarding your first point: True, I don’t remember the education classes being particularly difficult. I don’t think that proves that the profession draws less intelligent people, however. There’s such a thing as an interest in teaching and desire to teach, followed by jumping through the hoops that prepare you to do so.

    I think the article claims that education is the go-to major when you fail out of something else … or did I read that elsewhere? That IS disturbing.

    And tonight Fareed Zakaria on CNN is looking at education. He claimed in passing that education majors represent the bottom third of college students in terms of GPA. If education is an easier major to begin with, that is doubly disturbing.

    Zakaria looked at Finland and made the point that all teachers must have a master’s degree (NY does that too, FYI). He also explained how competitive the system is so that very few are able to get a master’s. From this competency level flows a great respect for teachers and good salaries as well as a successful education system. In other words, their teachers are “smart.” (They also seem to be well mentored…..)

    My point would be: you can’t look at this point in isolation. I don’t know how Finland functions, but in the European country where I was raised, I remember school kids being “weeded out” in grade five, and again in grade 8, with many not making it to high school — not traditional high school. They went to vocation education. University is free, and so entrance is competitive. In fact, it is based on quotas. A certain score on a test may be good enough to get you into a program one year, but the next year it would cause you to miss the cut off. Failure is common from grade school on up.

    You can’t look exclusively at the end product of the education system but must look at the cost used to produce that result throughout the system. I simply don’t know what it is in Finland. (The program did point out Finland doesn’t face the diversity or levels of poverty we have.)

    Zakaria made that point at the end. Even though (what he labeled as) the Asian school system taught him to work hard and gave him a solid knowledge base, it did not teach him to “think.” He saluted American invention and ingenuity.

    I salute art class, PE class, music class, libraries, playgrounds … all things which I did without in elementary school.

    Hmmm, I am veering off topic here.

    Perhaps getting into a teacher training system could become a more competitive process, but then salaries would need to catch up quickly to that new reality in teacher preparation.