A Teachable Moment

Update 11/09/11: The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents issued a report today on improving education that includes replacing lifetime tenure for teachers with five-year contracts. The unions will never agree but it’s an interesting idea anyway.

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The conventional wisdom among those who fancy themselves supporters of education is that teachers are terribly underpaid. And up until about 20 years ago, they were no doubt correct.

In the state of Connecticut — and indeed throughout the northeastern U.S. —  as best I can tell, teachers are now paid about what mid-level managers make in business. I work in a school alongside teachers every day. To me, the wages seem fair, especially when you consider that teachers work far fewer days than those in the private sector and, unlike many other classes of professionals, rarely have to travel on business and be away from their families for days (or even weeks) at a time.

Now along comes a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute concluding that … gasp … “public school teachers’ total compensation amounts to roughly $1.50 for every $1 that their skills could garner in a private sector job.”

You must be thinking this is an inapt comparison — apples to oranges? The authors of the study try to compensate for that by controlling for various factors such as benefits, legacy costs, job security, vacation and sick time and, most surprisingly, the fact that teacher education is often less competitive than other fields.

They say teachers typically score only in the 40th percentile on standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE. Furthermore, without citing any specific studies, the authors contend that “education is widely regarded [emphasis added] by researchers and college students alike as one of the easiest fields of study, and one that features substantially higher average grades than most other college majors.”

Of course, it probably depends on how selective the college, but in general the statement is probably true. I interviewed a high school guidance counselor in Dutchess County, N.Y., for an education story about 10 years ago. She told me off-the-record that she was trained to steer the less capable college-bound students into education because they were more likely to experience success in that course of study than, say, engineering or pre-law.

The authors’ point is that the notion that teachers are underpaid is easily disproved the minute you look for the so-called “hidden benefits” that make the profession more lucrative that it appears to the naked eye. That’s probably true. But is it fair say they are overpaid considering that they didn’t have to work as hard in college and grad school as a physician?

In strictly actuarial terms, yes. In human terms, probably not. At any rate, I’m glad I don’t have to make that call. That’s what elected officials are for, no?

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