Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument

4. Slashing teacher compensation won’t diminish the quality of teachers in the nation’s schools.

I’ve shown why I think it’s a fallacy to argue that teachers aren’t as skilled as private-sector employees with similar credentials. But, if you take this supposition at face value, think about what it suggests: that our current teacher workforce isn’t as talented as it should be.

If our goal is to attract more top-tier students to the teaching profession, then isn’t that actually an argument for why teachers should be paid more, and not less, than their current level? As Jonathan Chait wrote for New York magazine, “You get the teachers you pay for.”

When asked about this apparent contradiction, Biggs dismissed it as insignificant. “The best and the brightest won’t want to bother with” the teaching profession, he said, even if you raise teacher compensation.

He bases this belief not on any scientific evidence, but on his opinion that—as long as teachers are not paid based on a system of merit—many of the brightest students will continue to pass on a teaching career, because they cannot be compensated in a way that reflects their abilities.

“If you simply raise pay but do nothing else, you might raise [teacher] quality a little bit,” he said—but you’ll be overpaying the majority of teachers even more in the process.

I think Biggs is right in one respect: Offering more money alone will not help with recruiting and retaining highly skilled teachers. But it’s open to debate whether the current pay-scale practices supported by unions are the primary factor in discouraging more top-tier students from becoming teachers … or whether other factors are more likely responsible, such as the blatant lack of respect for the teaching profession that Biggs, his colleague, and many other Americans are guilty of.

While offering more money alone is unlikely to bolster recruitment and retention, cutting teacher salaries or benefits is a surefire way to hurt these efforts—despite what this policy paper argues.

Wisconsin officials already have seen the effects of their decision to cut the benefits of teachers in that state: Nearly 5,000 teachers opted for early retirement. If policy makers want to see a mass exodus like this in their own state or community, they need only follow the advice in this report.

Dennis Pierce

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