Right-Wing Media Hype Study Suggesting Public School Teachers Are Overpaid


Right-wing media have hyped a study published by conservative groups American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation that claims "public-school teachers are not underpaid in wages by private-sector standards, and they may even be overpaid." But many other studies have shown that public school teachers are paid relatively less than comparable workers, that their wages have been declining for decades, that U.S. teachers are paid less than their counterparts in most other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and that low teacher pay hurts recruitment and retention.

Right-Wing Media Hype Study Suggesting That Public School Teachers Are "Overpaid"

Wash. Exam. Hypes Conservative Study Finding That "Public-School Teachers Are Not Underpaid In Wages By Private-Sector Standards, And They May Even Be Overpaid." In an October 31 editorial titled, "Public school teachers make more than private sector workers," The Washington Examiner hyped an AEI/Heritage study that found "that when public school teachers and private sector workers are compared objectively on the basis of cognitive skills -- rather than years of service or educational attainment -- the educators enjoy higher compensation." From the editorial:

[O]ur headline captures the essence of an important new study being released today by Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis and American Enterprise Institute's Andrew Biggs. Richwine and Biggs found that when public school teachers and private sector workers are compared objectively on the basis of cognitive skills -- rather than years of service or educational attainment -- the educators enjoy higher compensation -- contrary to the claims of union officials in public debate and in negotiations with school boards.

This is seen most dramatically when workers switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs. Such a move typically results in a wage increase of approximately nine percent. "Teachers who change to non-teaching jobs, on the other hand, see their wages decrease by roughly 3 percent. This is the opposite of what one would expect if teachers were underpaid," Richwine and Biggs said.

The biggest factor in the compensation advantage enjoyed by public school teachers is not wages, however, but rather fringe benefits, which typically are substantially more generous than those paid to private sector workers in cognitively comparable positions. Public school teacher pension programs routinely offer higher benefits, thanks to the traditional calculation that lower salaries would be partially offset by more generous retirement packages. Also significant here is the provision by public school pension programs of paid or low-cost health insurance programs for retirees. Richwine and Biggs found the presence of retiree health benefits adds about 10 percent to the total value of public teacher compensation. As much as another 8.6 percent is added when the value of public school teacher job security is added to the comparison. [The Washington Examiner, 10/31/11]

Wash. Exam. Plugs AEI/Heritage Claim That "Teacher Compensation Could ... Be Reduced With Only Minor Effects On Recruitment And Retention." From the October 31 editorial:

Nationally, this disparity in compensation means that, while comparisons based solely on salary often do find a disadvantageous wage-gap for public school teachers, the bottom-line changes dramatically when benefits are considered. "More generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year. Teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention," Richwine and Biggs conclude. [The Washington Examiner, 10/31/11]

Weekly Standard: "This Study Could Go A Long Way Toward Puncturing The Myth That Most Of The Nation's Teachers Are Poorly Compensated." In a November 1 post headlined, "Study Concludes Public School Teacher Salaries $120 Billion Over Market Value," The Weekly Standard wrote:

Those on the left are wont to complain that government employees are under assault [sic] these days because GOP politicians are going after public sector unions and generous deals they've leveraged through collective bargaining. The standard defense of civil service workers is, yes, they might have good benefits and more job stability but these things are necessary because public sector workers earn significantly less than private sector counterparts.

Well, a new study by the American Enterprise Institute's Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine from the Heritage foundation concludes that America's public school teachers are just flat out overpaid. The headline numbers from the study are this: Teacher pay nationally is about $120 billion over market value, and teachers who switch to teaching from other jobs get a 9 percent pay rise, while people who leave teaching typically take a 3 percent pay cut.


Public school teachers have traditionally been treated as something of a sacred cow in political debates. This study could go a long way toward puncturing the myth that most of the nation's teachers are poorly compensated. [The Weekly Standard, 11/1/11]

Limbaugh: "The Bottom Line With This Is ... [Teachers] Make More Than Private Sector Workers." On the November 1 broadcast of Rush Limbaugh's radio show, Limbaugh hyped the study, saying:

LIMBAUGH: I mentioned earlier in the program today that I would be telling you of a shocking study on the truth of what public school teachers earn. A couple of researchers looked into this, and the Washington Examiner editorializes today, and the headline of their piece is: "Public School Teachers Make More Than Private Sector Workers."

Now, the reason I'm gonna spend some time on this is because we always hear about how teachers don't earn anything and they're so important.


The bottom line with this is that it's another piece of conventional wisdom that has now been stood on its head. That compared to others, public school teachers are desperately underpaid. They're not. They make more than private sector workers, and that's becoming accurate to say about every public sector versus private sector job. The average public sector employee makes almost twice when you factor benefits into the picture what a private sector person makes. Now, some of you might say, "So what, Rush. I thought you were for everybody doing well." Oh, I am, don't misunderstand. But private sector people are the ones who are paying the public sector people. That becomes a problem. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 11/1/11]

But Many Experts Agree Teachers Are Paid Less Than Comparable Workers ...

EPI: "Public School Teachers In 2010 Earned About 12 Percent Less Than Comparable Workers" In Weekly Earnings. A March 2011 issue brief from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), "The Teaching Penalty: An update through 2010," found that:

Trends in weekly earnings (Table 1) show that public school teachers in 2010 earned about 12% less than comparable workers, a gap equivalent to that found in our 2004 study. The weekly earnings disadvantage for teachers relative to comparable workers grew by 10.5 percentage points between 1979 and 2010, with most of the erosion (8.2 percentage points) occurring between 1996 and 2001. This increase in wage disparity for teachers is particularly troublesome because the 1990s recovery was one of the few periods in recent decades of strong overall wage growth for workers.

The report estimated that when "nonwage benefits of K-12 teachers" were taken into account, the weekly compensation disadvantage for teachers in 2010 was "about 9.0%." [EPI, 3/30/11]

NEA: 62 Percent Of Teachers Have Second Jobs Outside Of The Classroom. A 2006 National Education Association (NEA) report found that 62 percent of teachers have second jobs outside of the classroom. [NEA, accessed 11/2/11, via The Teacher Salary Project]

Department Of Education: 92.4 Percent Of Teachers Spend Their Own Money On Teaching Materials. According to the U.S. Department of Education, during the 2007-2008 school year, 92.4 percent of teachers used their own money to pay for classroom supplies. [Department of Education, accessed 11/2/11, via The Teacher Salary Project]

Politico: "Michelle Rhee ... Whom Labor Often Casts As A Crypto-Conservative ... [Writes,] 'We Do Not Agree That Teachers Are Overpaid.' " Politico's Ben Smith wrote in a November 1 blog post:

Michelle Rhee -- a prominent figure in the reform movement whom labor often casts as a crypto-conservative -- sends over a statement:

No, we do not agree that teachers are overpaid. Under the status quo in most school districts, good classroom teachers are not only undervalued in pay, but as professionals generally. At the same time teachers who aren't effective in the classroom are not getting the feedback or help they need. Or when a teacher has demonstrated that they can't become effective in the classroom they are being protected by outdated rules and diluting the value of effective teachers. By elevating the profession with meaningful accountability, merit pay and increased professional development we can more closely match our commitment to teachers to their true value.

While we need to be mindful of how much money we are putting into the system, the questions we should also be asking are 'what are we getting for that money' and 'can it be used more effectively.' We can accomplish the goal of attracting and retaining the best teachers and be fiscally responsible at the same time by moving money out of bloated bureaucracies that doesn't improve student learning and into the classroom where it can.

We did this successfully in Washington where we significantly cut central administration funding and moved that money into classroom resources including increasing the average teacher salary from $67,000 to $81,000 a year. Subsequently, we saw student learning increase as measured by independent national assessments. [Politico, 11/1/11, emphasis added]

"Labor Nemesis" Democrats For Education Reform: "We Think Teachers Are Paid Too Little For What They Are Tasked To Do." In a separate Politico blog post, Smith published a response to the study from Democrats for Education, a group Smith described as "typically a labor nemesis":

Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform -- typically a labor nemesis -- said lower pay wouldn't encourage improvement among teachers:

We think teachers are paid too little for what they are tasked to do, but that far too little is expected of them compared to the task at hand. Paying them less won't help kids. Expecting more of them, and paying them accordingly will, as we are seeing in DC, one of the few states that showed gains on the NAEP scores released today. [Politico, 11/2/11]

American Federation Of Teachers: Study "Uses Misleading Statistics And Questionable Research." NPR published a statement from the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest unions in the country, that criticized the study's methodology:

This report contains a number of ridiculous assertions, such as arbitrarily assigning 8.6 percent as a "job security premium" teachers supposedly enjoy. This "job security premium" is pure fiction, given the 278,000 public education jobs that have been lost during this recession. There's no basis for this claim -- it's simply a placeholder used to lead to AEI's conclusion. In our business, such reasoning would get a flunking grade.

The truth -- backed by reputable research -- is that few, if any, workers subsidize their professions like teachers. America's teachers spend hundreds of dollars per year on classroom supplies for their students and work longer hours than their peers in other nations, including late afternoons, evenings and weekends grading papers, preparing lesson plans, talking with students and their parents, and other school-related work. [NPR, 11/1/11]

... Teacher Pay Has Been Declining For Years ...

NYT Op-Ed: "The Average Teacher's Pay Is On Par With That Of A Toll Taker Or Bartender. ... In Real Terms, Teachers' Salaries Have Declined For 30 Years." In an April 30 New York Times op-ed, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, founders of the 826 National tutoring centers, wrote:

At the moment, the average teacher's pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers' salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary -- after 25 years in the profession -- is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like "A Plan," either on the state or federal level? [The New York Times, 4/30/11]

McKinsey: "Average Teacher Salaries Have Fallen Significantly As A Percentage Of GDP Per Capita Over The Past 30 Years." From a 2010 McKinsey & Co. study:

[T]he difference in starting salaries and other professions wasn't as large [in the 1960s and 1970s]. In 1970 in New York City, for example, a starting lawyer going into a prestigous firm and a starting teacher going into public education had a differential in their entry salary of about $2,000. Today, including salary and bonus, that starting lawyer makes $160,000, while starting teachers in New York make roughly $45,000.


[A]verage teacher salaries have fallen significantly as a percentage of GDP per capita over the past 30 years, reducing the relative rewards of teaching (see exhibit 1). Today starting teacher salaries average $39,000 nationally, and rise to an overall average of $54,000, with an average maximum salary of $67,000. This does not compare favorably to other professional options for top college graduates, particularly in major metropolitan areas (see exhibit 2 for an international comparison). [McKinsey & Co. report, September 2010]

... U.S. Teachers Are Paid Less Than Their Counterparts Internationally ...

OECD Report: Experienced Public School Teachers In U.S. Make "96 Percent Of The Country's [GDP] Per Capita," While OECD Average Is "117 Percent Of G.D.P. Per Capita." Linking to a 2007 OECD report, the New York Times blog Economix noted that primary education teachers in the U.S. with 15 years of experience are typically paid lower than in most other OECD countries. From the post:

American teachers' pay is more middling. The average public primary-school teacher who has worked 15 years and has received the minimum amount of training, for example, earns $43,633, compared to the O.E.C.D. average of $39,007.


Comparing each country's teacher salaries to the wealth of that country makes United States educational salaries appear lower. In the United States, a teacher with 15 years of experience makes a salary that is 96 percent of the country's gross domestic product per capita. Across the O.E.C.D., a teacher of equivalent experience makes 117 percent of G.D.P. per capita. At the high end of the scale, in Korea, the average teacher at this level makes a full 221 percent of the country's G.D.P. per capita.

The post included the following graph:


[Economix, The New York Times, 9/9/09]

... And Experts Agree That Low Teacher Pay Hurts Recruitment And Retention

Education Policy Analysis Archives: Only 4.7 Percent Of College Juniors Would Consider Teaching At The Current Starting Salary. According to the Education Policy Analysis Archives, only 4.7 percent of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. Sixty-eight percent of college students said they would consider the teaching profession if it paid 50 percent more than the current occupations they were considering. [Education Policy Analysis Archives, accessed 11/2/11, via The Teacher Salary Project]

Reuters In 2006: "Half Of New U.S. Teachers Are Likely To Quit Within The First Five Years Because Of Poor Working Conditions And Low Salaries." From a May 9, 2006, Reuters article:

Jessica Jentis fit the profile of a typical American teacher: She was white, held a master's degree and quit 2 1/2 years after starting her career.

According to a new study from the National Education Association, a teachers union, half of new U.S. teachers are likely to quit within the first five years because of poor working conditions and low salaries.

Jentis, now a stay-at-home mother of three, says that she could not make enough money teaching in Manhattan to pay for her student loans and that dealing with the school bureaucracy was too difficult. [Reuters, 5/9/06, via The Washington Post]

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