Education Opinion

Do Teachers Have It Too Good?

By Walt Gardner — February 02, 2015 2 min read
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“Many sources agree that, on the whole, American public schools are rotten” (“A World Without Public Schools, The Weekly Standard, Jun. 4, 2007). The villains are teachers who are more interested in their paychecks, summers off and pensions. At least that’s the argument made. But a report just released by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable calls that charge into question (“School Performance in Context,” Jan. 2015).

The study examined the educational systems of nine of the largest economies in the world (Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K, and the U.S.). It found that teachers here spend more time in front of their students than do their colleagues in the other eight countries. On average, teachers here spent 1,085 hours teaching in 2012 compared with just 664 hours on average abroad. The report did not include the time spent preparing lessons, grading tests and attending to other duties.

The irony is that countries where teachers work fewer hours produce better educated students. But critics persist in the belief that extending the school day and school year will somehow narrow the performance gap. I maintain that the law of diminishing returns applies here. After a certain point, the additional time is worthless. Teachers can teach only so much before they become exhausted. They’re already at this point from what I can see. But corporate reformers believe that teachers are underworked and overpaid.

As for the latter, a new teacher can expect on average to get about $36,000. (In California, New Jersey and New York, the average beginning salary is closer to $45,000.) This compares with an average salary in the nations studied of $39,426. Yet despite these paltry paychecks, the argument is made that teachers are actually overpaid for the work they do. In fact, when salaries, fringe benefits and job security are considered, teachers receive about 52 percent more in average compensation than they could earn in the private sector (“Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2011).

I don’t accept the comparison with workers in the private sector as convincing. Teaching is much tougher than what most people think. If teachers are indeed overpaid, then why is it so hard to retain college graduates? I’m talking about studies showing that half of new teachers quit after five years. I’m still waiting for an answer that makes sense.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.