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What Does it Mean to Say We Want Teachers to Be a Profession on Par with Doctors?

By Sara Mead — January 16, 2012 2 min read

One interesting result of the the seemingly ever-increasing vogue for evoking Finland in education reform conversations is that it’s become a sort of conventional wisdom that “In Finland, teaching is a high-status profession, comparable to doctors,” a statement I most recently saw evoked by omnipresent Finnish educator and Finnish-style reform (whatever that means) evangelist Pasi Sahlberg in this Ed Week forum. Then someone controlling edweek’s twitter feed asked if teachers should be on the same pay scale as doctors.

Obviously, it makes intuitive sense that if we value teaching, we should respect teachers (although I think it’s possible to get a bit simple-headed about what this actually means, too--more on that later). But what do people actually mean when they say “teaching should be a respected profession on par with doctors” or that “In high-performing countries, teaching is a respected profession, on part with doctors”?

I think that the implication of such statements, in the U.S. context, is highly skewed by the fact that the U.S. is a real outlier in terms of the amount of respect and compensation accorded to doctors.

U.S. doctors make significantly more than their peers in other developed countries, and roughly 2.5 times as much, annually, as their Finnish peers. The degree to which American doctors are highly compensated was also brought home for me this week in this NYT analysis of occupations held by people in the “Top 1%"--a group that includes fully 27% of doctors working in clinics and doctors’ offices, and from 13-21% of those working in other settings, depending on the setting. And our relatively high rates of physician compensation, in international context, are both a contributor to our unusually high health care costs and something that will likely need to change in order to make our public health care commitments sustainable over the long term.

Now, obviously, money is not the only reflection of the respect in which a profession is held. But it is one important indicator, and the huge differences in medical compensation between the U.S. and other nations both shape attitudes towards the profession and reflect other differences in how the profession and training for it are organized that also affect degree of public respect.

In any case, the point is that, if one takes comparisons of the regard in which Finnish doctors and teachers are held to mean that U.S. teachers ought to be paid or regarded in the same way U.S. doctors are, that’s likely to lead to the wrong conclusions, not in the least because the levels of both compensation and respect awarded to doctors are likely to decline in future years.

In fact, for all we hear about the tremendous degree of professional respect awarded to Finnish teachers, they actually are paid less than their American counterparts. Now, again, that’s only part of the picture: Finnish teachers are paid less on average than American teachers, but they are paid more relative to their college educated peers, in part because Finland has a lower level of income inequality.

Now, obviously compensation is not the only reflection of the degree of respect a profession is awarded or how widely coveted it is by workers--just ask the many young college graduates here in D.C. competing for low-paid Hill or journalism jobs. But that just underscores how complicated it is to say that “teaching should be a well respected profession on par with doctors,” and that people who say that need to be a lot more clear (and possibly also thoughtful) about what they actually mean by it.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.