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Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as International Report Finds U.S. Teacher Salaries Lagging

International Report Finds U.S. Teacher Salaries Lagging

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America continues to be the world's biggest education spender, but precollegiate teachers here may not be getting their fair share of the investment, an international report suggests.

The United States spends almost twice as much per college student than the average industrialized country, and its per-pupil spending in secondary schools is outpaced by only two of the 27 countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But U.S. teachers' salaries are just slightly higher than the OECD average, and rank low when compared with those of other U.S. college-educated workers in the United States, according to Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, which the group scheduled for release May 16.

"If a closer look is taken at how the resources invested in education are spent, the data show that average teachers' pay is relatively low in the U.S.," the authors write in a summary of the report, which updates and adds to education statistics the OECD last published in 1998.

The disparity between total U.S. education spending and K-12 teacher compensation occurs because the United States puts a disproportionate share of its education dollars into colleges and universities, the summary says.

In addition, this country's elementary and secondary schools devote just 57 percent of their budgets to teacher salaries, compared with the international average of 64 percent. American schools also spend a larger share than other industrialized countries on nonteaching personnel, as the OECD has noted in earlier editions of its reports. ("Majority of Education Workforce Found To Be Non-Teachers," Dec. 8, 1993.)

Fodder for Debate

Teachers' union officials say the data bolster their long- standing contention that teachers here are underpaid and deserve to be compensated as well as their counterparts in other countries and in other professions.

"Within the country that's the wealthiest in the world, teaching is not valued at the level it should be," Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said.

The report "reaffirms the fact that teachers [elsewhere] are paid better compared to the national wealth of other industrialized countries," said Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the National Education Association. "Perhaps the most striking part of it is that gap in salaries between teachers and other college-educated workers. It's enormous and grows wider the longer people stay in the teaching profession."

But other analysts say the numbers don't reflect many of the benefits American teachers enjoy that their counterparts in other countries lack.

U.S. teachers usually work on nine-month contracts, while their counterparts in many other countries work year round, said C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Education Information, a private research group based in Washington. And compared with other U.S. employees, teachers enjoy better health-care benefits, pension plans, and job security, she argued.

"The international comparisons get really fuzzy because you can be talking about apples and oranges," Ms. Feistritzer added. "The bottom line is: If you look at [U.S.] teacher salaries on a per-hour or a per-day basis and compare them to other [U.S.] professions, they fare very well."

The OECD, however, says it is unable to ascertain how much teachers work because countries count work hours differently. Some only consider classroom time as work hours; others add in related tasks such as lesson preparation and professional development.

Spending Advantage

The Paris-based OECD regularly collects and publishes statistics on the educational systems of its 29 member countries. The data span public and private school spending, high school and college graduation rates, and teacher salaries.

Follow Up
Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators is available for $42 by calling (800) 456-6323.

In other highlights from the 380-page latest edition, the organization says:

Other OECD countries are starting to surpass the United States in the level of education their children will probably attain. In 1990, a 5-year-old could expect to complete an average of 16.3 years of schooling here—the highest rate in the OECD. Today, the OECD predicts an American 5-year-old will finish 16.8 years of school, but it also predicts that children in nine other OECD countries will exceed that number.· Other OECD countries are starting to surpass the United States in the level of education their children will probably attain. In 1990, a 5-year-old could expect to complete an average of 16.3 years of schooling here—the highest rate in the OECD. Today, the OECD predicts an American 5-year-old will finish 16.8 years of school, but it also predicts that children in nine other OECD countries will exceed that number.

The United States spends $17,466 on average per college student—compared with the OECD average of $8,612—and $7,230 on average for each middle and high school student, compared with the OECD average of $5,273. The dollar figures, along with all the others cited in the report, are adjusted to account for the purchasing power of the national currencies.· The United States spends $17,466 on average per college student— compared with the OECD average of $8,612—and $7,230 on average for each middle and high school student, compared with the OECD average of $5,273. The dollar figures, along with all the others cited in the report, are adjusted to account for the purchasing power of the national currencies.

In addition to their pay differences, U.S. teachers are expected to spend more time in the classroom than their international counterparts. On average, a U.S. high school teacher is required to be teaching 943 hours a year. The OECD average is 642 hours. This year, the OECD for the first time compared teacher pay with that of other workers who have earned a college degree.· In addition to their pay differences, U.S. teachers are expected to spend more time in the classroom than their international counterparts. On average, a U.S. high school teacher is required to be teaching 943 hours a year. The OECD average is 642 hours. This year, the OECD for the first time compared teacher pay with that of other workers who have earned a college degree.

In the United States, the gap between the average teacher's salary and the average college graduate's pay was the second-largest of the 15 countries that provided such data for Education at a Glance. Only teachers in the Czech Republic fared worse.

By contrast, Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand pay high school teachers more than the average college graduate. In those countries, however, pay for elementary school teachers trails that of the average university graduate, but not by as much as for K-6 teachers in the United States.

This finding adds to data in earlier editions of Education at a Glance that showed U.S. teachers earned a smaller portion of the per-capita gross domestic product than in most OECD countries. In 1998, according to the current publication, America's precollegiate teachers ranked near the bottom of that scale, followed by the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Norway.

More Education

But the report also found that other countries expect teachers to complete more education before they enter the classroom. In most countries, prospective teachers are expected to finish five years of postsecondary education. Only the United States and Australia regularly certify teachers who earn bachelor's degrees.

The issues of starting salaries and education level are linked, Ms. Feistritzer said. Starting teacher salaries here trail those of such professionals as lawyers and doctors in part because teachers enter with a college degree and others must earn higher degrees.

Extra education for prospective teachers is something that union officials might be willing to support if they received the promise of higher entry salaries, the NEA's Mr. Pons said. States that have rigorous licensing requirements are less likely than other states to experience teacher shortages and more likely to see their students perform well on achievement tests, he said.

"If people were to say: 'We're going to have higher expectations ... in exchange for higher salaries,' in general, that would be something we would support," Mr. Pons said.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Page 5

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