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Equity in Teacher Pay: The Debate Continues



By Jacquie McGregor

Perhaps no issue in education is more controversial than that of teacher salaries. One side of the controversy claims that teachers are overpaid, while the other claims that teachers are woefully underpaid. Both sides attempt to quantify the quality of teaching as an effect of the amount of pay. As with all statistics, the numbers can vary widely depending on geographic location, scope of the data, and the personal bias of the researcher.

If you were to ask a hundred people if teacher pay is fair, chances are you would get wildly differing answers. What might be considered be a simple yes-or-no question is actually loaded with considerations. Do you count benefits as part of a teacher’s pay? How about the summer months? Where do you factor in extended days and work-at-home time? What about required additional coursework? There is no easy formula for determining teacher salaries, much less deciding whether they are fair.

Attempting to provide a fair look at the topic proves almost as difficult as providing a definitive answer to the question. Teacher salaries are such a politically charged issue that any effort at objective research is met with a barrage of subjective studies. In light of this, perhaps the easiest way to present a less-biased (although certainly not completely unbiased) picture of the issue is to consider the extremes of both sides.

Teachers are overpaid

In 2011, Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs released a study for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, contending that teachers are paid 52 percent more than they could make in equivalent private sector jobs. The study was based on the idea that teachers earned more, on average, than other workers with the same SAT scores in different professions.

The study was centered on the concept that salary would be assigned as a direct result of intellectual ability. For instance, the authors state:

“Education is widely regarded by researchers and college students alike as one of the easiest fields of study, and one that features substantially higher average grades than most other college majors. On objective tests of cognitive ability such as the SAT, ACT, GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and Armed Forces Qualification Test, teachers score only around the 40th percentile of college graduates. If we compare teachers and non-teachers with similar AFQT scores, the teacher salary penalty disappears.”

Here is the fundamental platform of the argument: teachers should be paid based on their perceived intellectual abilities, rather than on any set formula. Further, the authors contend that teaching as a profession is fundamentally equivalent to all other professions, and that no distinction should be made between the requirements of a teaching career and those of a private sector worker.

Teachers are underpaid

Those on the other side of the issue take a completely different stance. They, too, can provide numbers to back up their opinion. Consider the Teacher Salary Project, an organization dedicated to the proposition that higher teacher salaries will lead to the recruitment and retention of outstanding teachers. The group’s philosophy is espoused by the movie American Teacher, which looks at ways teacher pay is being revamped throughout the United States. Time is spent analyzing schools like The Equity Project, in New York, that are experimenting with teacher salaries of $125,000 a year and above, in order to find out if teacher salary is actually linked to greater student performance.

The problem with both of these arguments is that the numbers are never as clear as either side tries to make them seem. The argument of teacher salary is so clouded with ideological manipulation that there is truly no one answer. While some look at teacher salary as a result of the detrimental effects of a self-sustaining union system, other see it as a painful reminder that education is highly undervalued in American society.

It certainly doesn’t appear that the teacher salary debate is going away any time soon. And, perhaps, this is for the best. If we stop questioning the systems that directly influence America’s students, we run the risk of complacency. Complacency in education is a worst-case scenario—as a society, we should always be looking for ways to improve the prospects of our children and, by default, our future. Teacher salary is yet another consideration in the ongoing educational debate, and one that we should continue to look at as long as we value the needs of our students.


Jacquie McGregor has taught a wide variety of subjects in 15 years as an educator, including music, art, language arts and life skills. She currently works in online education as a course mentor, teacher and curriculum writer, at both the K-12 and university levels. She is completing her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focusing on arts programming in educational free markets.

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