Jewish World Review August 25, 2010 / 15 Elul, 5770
The myth of the underpaid teacher
By Betsy Hart
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | "One of the most consistent complaints among teachers is that they don't get paid enough," CNNMoney.com reports.
Of course, that's the perception of educators. And the popular culture. The Hollywood version of the overworked, underpaid teacher is the mother's milk of the teachers' unions. "Low teacher pay comes at a high cost for schools and kids," the National Education Association declares on its website as if it's discussing a law of physics.
Wow, do they get their message out.
Look. I have four kids who will head off to various public schools next week. I'm glad for the good, responsive and caring teachers I know they'll have. Of course, I expect such things since I pay for them through high property taxes and school fees. But the overworked, underpaid variety? Yes, some teachers fit that description. But on the whole, it's a myth, and perpetuating the myth degrades teachers, their profession and our kids.
Let's start with the ABCs of teacher compensation. My own state of Illinois is on the high end of average teacher pay, but it's instructive nonetheless. Here the average teacher makes more than $60,000 a year, according to the NEA. In Chicago, it's higher: $70,000. Some, particularly in the Chicago suburbs, make over $100,000 a year.
And compared to their peers? A 2007 report from the Manhattan Institute looked at Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data and found that when comparing pay for workers on an hourly basis across the United States, "The average public-school teacher was paid 36 percent more per hour than the average non-sales white-collar worker and 11 percent more than the average professional specialty and technical worker." For example, architects or chemists.
On average, teachers also work fewer hours per week, in the weeks they work, than their professional peers. BLS statistics are designed to take into account all hours worked by teachers, including those spent grading papers and preparing for class and any hours spent on required extracurricular activities.
But the base pay is just part of the compensation package. Educator health benefits are gold-plated, and the pensions are staggering. Illinois is one of many states being nearly bankrupted by them. Fully vested career teachers in Illinois, for example, can retire with up to 65 percent of their average career salaries for the rest of their lives, and get regular "cost of living" increases, too.
And, of course, along the way, teachers have several months off work each year to work elsewhere or not at all. Priceless.
Moreover, the teachers' unions make it almost impossible to get fired for being a lousy teacher. Scott Reeder, an experienced investigative journalist in Springfield, Ill., showed in his 2005 series, "The Hidden Costs of Tenure," that as of that year, on average, two of 95,000 tenured teachers across Illinois were outright fired each year due to poor performance. Two. It's hard to imagine that Illinois is somehow different from the rest of the country on this one, either.
Back to how all this hurts teachers. Collin Hitt, director of education policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, pointed out to me that we don't "celebrate" Father's Day, for example, by declaring how awful it is to be a father. Just the opposite! And so perpetuating the mythology that teachers typically have a raw deal doesn't honor them at all, but only denigrates their profession and status.
Worst of all, this agenda dishonors our kids by telling them they are not a public priority, when nothing could or should be further from the truth.
While there are exceptions, of course, most teachers, and certainly in comparison with other professions, have well-compensated, comfortable, meaningful, secure jobs precisely because we value teachers. There are lots of problems with our education system. But the lesson here is that not taking good care of our teachers sure isn't one of them.
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