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How much should teachers be paid?

"Without our teachers, where would we be?" asked one reader.

With U.S. schools facing enormous pressure to improve, even as state and local budgets continue to evaporate, teacher compensation is the latest flashpoint in debates about education reform.

Though some critics argue that teachers are overpaid (see “Hey teachers: The Heritage Foundation thinks you’re overpaid”), many believe it’s just the opposite (see “Four fallacies of the ‘teachers are overpaid’ argument” and “Teachers facing low salaries opt to moonlight”).

To get our readers’ perspective, we recently asked: “What do you think teachers should be paid?” Here are some of the most thought-provoking responses (edited for brevity).

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

At least enough to make a living

“Really a tough question—in as much that (a) budgets are really tight these days and (b) so many systems are locked in via union contracts to pay increases based upon degree status and time on the job. So let’s start there: Increases should not be controlled in any way by time on the job—even if it is easy to determine. I believe teachers really can and ought to be made to provide a self-assessment of their efforts and the progress of their students, including their discussion of contributing circumstances associated with those efforts and progress made—with sample ‘data’ used in the assessment and with proposed individual changes believed to address needed improvement. That’s what professionals are expected to do, and teaching is and should be considered a profession.

“With that as input …, teacher base salaries should be comparable to that of other professionals such as engineers, accountants, speech/physical therapists, etc. I’m thinking about $60K in the northeast USA where I live. More importantly, there should be a significant merit pool (consistent with funds availability) … I really think, if asked, most good teachers would want a livable salary (no requirement for finding supplemental income) and then support to facilitate an enriching and challenging educational experience for their students—more than large salary increases. Good teachers, I believe, are intrinsically motivated far more than extrinsically motivated.” —John Bennett, Emeritus Professor / Associate Dean, University of Connecticut, Coventry, Conn.

Pay for the ‘overtime’

“An average work week for a teacher is around 55 hours. That is just for five days, not counting the weekend. … If an average teacher is being paid $35K for a 40-hour work week, who is paying the teacher to complete the extra [work from planning and grading] assignments? … [Also,] teachers have to pay for classes to stay current in teaching strategies and to keep their certificates. How many people have to pay for classes to keep a certificate?” —Jacki Kratz, classroom technology specialist, Sage Technology Solutions, Pa.

Pay should include stipends for professional development, materials

“I feel teachers should be paid a starting salary of $50,000 per year. Teachers must take classes to stay current in their field. In addition, many teachers stay after school to help students who are struggling or need clarification of a concept they are studying. Most teachers I know also buy things for their classroom without being reimbursed for it.” —Anonymous

“I firmly believe the starting salary for a teacher should be $45,000 to $55,000 per year with a master’s degree. Over the past 35 years, I have taught in industry, public education at the secondary level, and public and private education at the higher-education level. To obtain the credentials and authorizations to teach at these various levels has cost me approximately $100,000.  Teachers, along with doctors and other highly skilled professionals, must maintain and update their skills, commonly referred to as continuing education, on a regular basis. This can be in the form of additional courses or seminars, creating additional costs for teachers. This does not take into account the extra out-of-pocket expenses that teachers accumulate for classroom materials, books, and extracurricular activities, for which they are not compensated either by the school district or parents.” —Doyle J. Potter, faculty advisor, Azusa Pacific University, Department of Innovative Educational Technology and Physical Education

Salaries should at least equal those of service professionals

“Compared to other services, teachers are a bargain. Do you have someone to maintain your lawn, plow your driveway, fix your plumbing, car, roof, or computer? Let’s assume for argument’s sake that their average hourly wage is $20 (we know that in reality, it is much higher for many of these services). If you hired your child’s teacher at $20/hour for 7 hours per day, that would total $140 per day. If that teacher had 26 of your neighbor’s children at $20/hour for 7 hours, that would total $3,870 per day. If the teacher worked 180 days, that comes to a grand total of $696,600.” —Barbara Jagla, technology literacy specialist, Tewksbury, Mass.

Teachers should be paid like babysitters. This is similar to an eMail I got: The national average for babysitting is actually $10-12/hour for college-age babysitters. Teacher wage per hour: $5 per hour for each student. Average number of students per class: 22. Average number of hours per day a teacher works: 7 hours. Average number of days per year a teacher works: 180. Class, let’s pull out our calculators. 22 students at $5 per hour = $110 per hour. $110 per hour multiplied 7 hours a day = $770 per day. $770 per day multiplied 180 days a year = $138,600. He also argues that on top of this, most teachers put in an extra ‘three to four hours a day preparing, assessing, tutoring, and participating in extracurricular events to ensure the success of their students.’ Based on that, plus the fact that the average rate of babysitters is around $10/hour, his calculator should actually be well more than doubled … in the high $300,000s. How’s that for a starting salary?” —Carola Lowe, technology teacher, Metcalf Elementary School, Houston, Texas

Make salaries competitive

“I had a professor in college, when working on my master’s degree, say teachers should make the same as doctors, lawyers, senators, and presidents.  After all, if it weren’t for teachers, how would these people be who they are?  He continued to lay out his plan by saying: Set the curriculum for education majors as rigorous as medical and law students, which would weed out those who aren’t serious or capable of continuing in the program, … and you would only have the most qualified entering the workforce. Then salaries could be set accordingly, like doctors and lawyers, and accountability for end results could be set high without resentment. Teachers would then be able to support their families without working two or three jobs and taking away important planning time preparing for educating the children they have been assigned.” —Harold Malcolm

You get what you pay for

“I think it is important to say that any system of education that pays its teachers so little that they are forced to work in second jobs simply to meet daily living expenses is not only neglecting the professional needs of its employees, who should be able to bring the whole of their professional focus to bear on their chosen occupation, but neglecting the educational benefit of the students entrusted to its care. Who, for example, would trust a solicitor or barrister who had to work as a barman to supplement his income? Wouldn’t we make a judgment of him as being professionally incompetent?” —Matthew Wood, head of English, Australia

“If you’re lucky, you get what you pay for. Over the last half century, salary issues have determined where the best and the brightest students work for a living. If you want smart, motivated teachers, you have to pay them. Teaching is a career, not a religious vocation.” —John Hunter, retired educator

It’s a matter of perception

A person’s salary is a symbol of their perceived value in society. A low salary is indicative of a society that doesn’t value their services, while a higher salary means they have a more important and respected role in the community. People in any profession are highly motivated by the extent to which they feel their services are valued and needed by society. Commensurate with societal value are societal expectations. With higher salary comes higher expectations for performance, while lower salaries may cause some teachers to use the excuse that they aren’t getting paid enough to make it worth the stress and misery they have to endure. Higher salaries also provide a better justification for terminating those teachers who clearly fail to meet standards. With higher salaries will come a larger pool of talented candidates to make it easier to ferret out unqualified, inferior teachers. Taxpayer complaints about additional money going into schools should be offset by clearly measured and visible gains in student performance and motivation resulting from better teaching.” —Charles G. Geller, M.A. Education, California State University Long Beach

“Recruiting the best and the brightest to light up young minds and create the educated citizens we deserve in this country needs to be fairly compensated. I believe that compensating teachers in the $70K range and up is an investment in our future. We need to make teaching as a profession something to be coveted and desired like engineering, law, medicine, and finance. Good teachers make all the rest of our economy possible by creating the talent, innovation, and industry we are so desperate for in our country today.” —Gail Barraco, administrative coordinator, Eastern Suffolk BOCES School Library System, Education and Information Support Services, Bellport, N.Y.

Consider the stress

“I think teacher pay should be around $40,000 to start and increase after that based on years of service and other criteria that might include additional degrees, duties, or accomplishments. Very few people have a clear understanding of the stress of dealing with students in the classroom. Management of 30+ people in one small area for 60-90 minutes in most high schools is not a small feat. Effective teachers must then provide grades, feedback, and communication with parents for these students, usually 120-160 people per day. It is very easy to make examples of lazy or less than stellar teachers and use this as a justification for lowering teacher pay. Most teachers put in 10- to 12-hour days doing school work, regardless of the location at home or school.” —Yvonne Stuart, media specialist, Hutchings High School

We can’t afford their proper salary

If we were to pay teachers commensurate with the importance of their job, they would make $100,000 or more. After all, what is more important than the future of our children? But this is not realistic. We are already demanding that our government lower our debt without raising our taxes, so how can we also expect the salaries of public servants to be raised to where they should be? If we assume that teachers are not in the job to get rich, but rather because they love teaching and want to impart knowledge to our children, then we can get down to discussing a more realistic salary. A beginning teacher with a bachelor degree should make at least $35,000, and a beginning teacher with a master’s should make slightly more. An experienced teacher should definitely be making $50,000 to $60,000 a year or more, depending on where she or he lives.” —DeLena Jones

Not all teachers are equal

“My biggest frustration as a school board member was not being able to reword excellent performance and give incentives to bring poor performers up to speed. You can’t say a teacher with specific qualification should receive $40,000. I have seen teachers with under 4 years’ experience and a bachelor’s far outperform teachers with twice the experience and a master’s. Teachers should be paid what they are worth on an individual basis given their performance, and some are not worth $30,000. Some are worth far more.” —Kevin Strand, network technical support specialist, Douglas School District

More than the cost of a prisoner

“Teachers should be paid at least as much as the annual per-capita prisoner cost in their state. In my state it averages $54,000 each. There is ample evidence showing the relation between student failure and incarceration. Ask the prison planners who base their projections on fourth-grade reading scores.” —Ted March

No less than an administrator

Building and district administrators and district-level staff should make no more than classroom teachers, if that much. Many times, resources meant for the education of our children are wasted on top-heavy, cumbersome central office bureaucracies, which is rarely what the taxpayers had in mind.” —Marian Royal Vigil, librarian, Socorro High School, N.M.

Pay for the future

“$50-75K as starting salary, easily—yes even in today’s economy. Teachers are teaching the future. Today’s students are tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, politicians, economists, meter-readers, librarians, public servants—you name it, teachers are responsible for the start of the future. Shouldn’t we reward that responsibility? We reward athletes and those in the entertainment industry, why not the teachers? Without our teachers, where would we be?” —Melissa Rollosson, instructional technology resource teacher, Accomack County Public Schools

Impossible to determine

“It is not possible to set such an amount. $60,000 is a lot for a teacher in Mississippi, but barely a living wage in New York City. Measuring the ‘worth’ of a teacher is complicated at any given moment. Having said that, it must also be remembered that there is no proven correlation between a teacher’s pay and student’s performance. If there is any correlation, it goes the opposite: Teacher pay has increased significantly over the past decade–while student scores have dropped as significantly! Good teachers do a good job, no matter what their salary level is, and bad teachers will still not turn into good teachers when their salary is increased. Performance pay is not a good idea, since there are too many factors involved where the teacher has little or no impact. The ‘standard’ ones, such as socio-economic, parental involvement, and such have their own impact on student performance. But when you see kids with all the ‘good’ things surrounding them perform badly, how is that explained? To make a teacher responsible for overcoming those obstacles is unfair. How about making students responsible for their results?” —Rudy Schellekens

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