Study Compares Teacher Salaries in 10 Nations

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By Blake Rodman

A recent federal study that sought to compare the salary levels of elementary- and high-school educators in 10 "advanced" countries contains both good and bad news for American teachers.

The good news, according to the study, is that teachers in the United States, on average, are paid as well as or better than their counterparts in most other major industrial countries.

Of the countries studied, only Canada pays its teachers substantially more on average than American teachers.

But that bright picture changes dramatically, the study found, when teachers' average pay is examined in relation to a widely used measure of countries' domestic economic activity.

When the study compared teachers' salaries with the per capita gross domestic product of their respective countries, it found that American teachers fared less well than those in eight of the other nations.

"While absolute levels of teacher pay in the U.S. are high compared with levels of pay in other countries," the 68-page report states, "relative pay levels appear low, at least in relation to" per capita gross domestic product--a valuation of goods and services that excludes income from abroad.

"It appears that teachers in the United States are able to claim smaller shares of national income and output than are teachers in other advanced countries," the report says.

The study, "International Comparisons of Teachers' Salaries: An Exploratory Study," was conducted by Steven M. Barro of smb Economic Research Inc. for the National Center for Education Statistics, the data-gathering arm of the U.S. Education Department.

It presents and compares teacher-salary data for Britain, Canada,el10lDenmark, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Sweden, the United States, and West Germany. (See tables on next page.)

Mr. Barro tried to gather data for the 1983-84 school year, but accepted and included data for the most recent year for which they were available.

The average salaries cited in the report were converted to equivalent U.S. dollars using established "purchasing-power-parity" exchange rates.

Data-Gathering Difficulties

Mr. Barro emphasizes the "exploratory" nature of his research.

Much of the report focuses on the difficulties he encountered in his effort to gather salary information and come up with valid comparisons for the diverse countries studied.

There are large variations among the countries in the "completeness, quality, and reliability of the information" available, Mr. Barro notes.

Moreover, he says, differences in systems of education, in the age and training of teaching forces, and in teacher workloads "raise doubts about data comparability."

"Pending further work on these problems," he states in the report, "the salary comparisons presented here should be treated as preliminary, tentative, and illustrative rather than definitive."

He adds, however, that his findings "do help to place the salaries of U.S. teachers in an international context."

Many recent critics of American education have asserted that teachers in other countries are better qualified and enjoy a higher social and economic status than their counterparts in the United States. Such assertions have made U.S. educators and policymakers increasingly receptive to lessons from abroad.

Although the study was not a policy analysis, Mr. Barro said it was motivated in part by a belief that cross-country comparisons of teachers' salaries would "respond to interests of U.S. policymakers."

"International comparisons," he wrote, "have the potential to contribute to U.S. policy debates by illuminating the relationships between teacher supply and teacher quality, on one hand, and teacher compensation, on the other."

He stressed, however, that his study was not designed to address such broad issues.

Salary and Seniority

He found that teachers "universally" are paid according to salary schedules that explicitly reward seniority, but that the number of years for which they continue to earn experience varies greatly between countries. Denmark and Sweden had the lowest ratio of maximum to minimum salary, 1.3 to 1. Japan had the highest, 3 to 1, followed by South Korea, with 2.4 to 1.

The United States fell into the middle of the range in this comparison. The average pay for the most-senior American teachers with bachelor's degrees, Mr. Barro found, is about 1.65 times that of the least senior; for teachers with graduate degrees, the ratio is 1.73 to 1.

Copies of the report may be obtained free of charge from the Education Information Branch, U.S. Education Department, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Room 300, Washington, D.C. 20208-5641.

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