Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument

3. Working conditions aren’t a significant factor in teacher compensation models.

Comparing the wages and benefits of public school teachers with those of private-sector employees without also examining working conditions, or the level of satisfaction these groups have with their professions, is another omission that further damages the researchers’ credibility.

Public school teachers often have to deal with dangerous, unmotivated, or unruly students, because public schools must serve all students in their jurisdictions and must go through a rigorous legal process before removing dangerous or unruly students. Besides knowledge of their specific content areas, then, public school teachers also must be adept at classroom management techniques and child or adolescent psychology. Not only are they teachers of academic content, but also disciplinarians, counselors, role models, and social workers for dozens of students.

Public school teachers learn these additional skills in classroom management and child psychology in the education programs that Richwine and Biggs have tried to discredit; it’s a key reason why public school teachers are required to earn advanced degrees and certifications in education.

Many people think public school teaching is easy, and they point to all the vacation time teachers get, but this perception just doesn’t match reality. During the school year, teachers work long hours in grading papers, planning lessons, mapping their curriculum to standards, communicating with parents and students, attending staff meetings and professional development, and taking part in school functions—not to mention their six hours per day delivering instruction.

Besides classroom discipline problems, teachers often have to deal with inadequate budgets, unsupportive parents or administrators, and a host of other issues. What’s more, teachers often don’t get time to collaborate or interact with their adult colleagues, unless it’s on their own time outside of school. These are among the many reasons the teaching profession has such a high turnover rate: Nearly half of public school teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

I haven’t done the research, but I’d strongly suspect that this turnover rate is much higher than the overall average for professionals with similar credentials. If teachers are so overpaid, then why are so many of them leaving the profession in their first few years?

In response to my queries, Biggs argued that attrition rates are high in the early years for all jobs, as employees discover that the job or career isn’t right for them. He further argued that attrition rates within the first few years of teaching are especially high, because “it’s only then that you can fire a poor performer,” before he or she earns tenure.

“What matters is overall attrition rates, which I’m very confident are lower for teachers,” Biggs said, though he failed to cite any research supporting this. His reasoning? Because teachers’ pension plans “make it financially insane for a mid-career employee to quit—you leave literally hundreds of thousands of future retirement benefits on the table.”

In other words, a strong incentive for mid-career teachers to continue in the profession is the generous retirement benefit they receive. Take this incentive away, Biggs implies, and teacher attrition would be even higher.

Doesn’t this logic collapse his premise in the first place: that, because teachers are overpaid compared to private-sector employees with similar skills, policy makers can cut teacher benefits without affecting teacher recruitment and retention?

Dennis Pierce

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