Thursday, July 3, 2014

Myth #10. Teachers in the United States are well-paid.

Some critics cite higher than average salaries for teachers in the United States compared to their counterparts in some other industrialized nations with similar years of experience and grade level teaching assignments as evidence that American teachers are in fact well-paid. Incredibly, some tone-deaf economists even claim that teachers are overpaid. One anti-public education critic, whose mother was a teacher, also claims teachers are paid more than they are worth — I won't touch that little bit of family dynamics with a ten-foot pole. Reading these practitioners of the dismal science makes clear that they attribute no value whatsoever to the sensitivity, emotional maturity, and empathy that it takes to act in loco parentis for a group of 25 7-year-olds. I wonder at what price they value a mother's labor?

In reality, American teachers are paid less than teachers in many other countries as several critical comparisons will reveal: 1) relative wages of other domestic workers with similar levels of education, 2) salaries per hour based on the amount of time spent teaching each day; 3) differences in top salaries between starting and experienced teachers; and 4) salary trends over the last decade.

U.S. teacher salaries are considerably lower than those of other full-time, full-year workers (ages 25-64) in the U.S. with comparable levels of post-secondary education. For example, teachers employed in U.S. public schools who meet the minimum training requirements and have more than ten years’ experience receive an average annual salary ranging from 28% less at the upper secondary level to 33% less at the primary level than that of other similarly educated workers (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012).

Teachers in several European and Asian countries enjoy higher salaries per hour than teachers typically earn in the U.S. While some critics justify teachers’ relatively lower wages as appropriate given the flexibility and additional vacation time often built into schedules in American public schools, it is not surprising that the average salary per hour (based on net contract or teaching time) for U.S. teachers with at least 15 years of experience is lower than the OECD average (OECD, 2012). Specifically, American teachers with 15 years’ experience earn on average $41 to $46 USD per hour of teaching, at the primary and upper secondary levels, while average teachers with 15 years’ experience in comparison countries earn $49 and $65 USD per hour at the same levels (OECD, 2012). In fact, upper secondary teachers in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Japan reach an hourly salary up to $90 USD or more.

When compared to the average salary of teachers with at least 15 years of experience in 2000, salaries for teachers in the U.S. fluctuated each year from 2005-2010, increasing little in any given year across primary, lower secondary, and upper secondary levels (OECD, 2012). In fact, upper secondary teachers’ wages actually decreased 2% in 2005 compared to five years earlier (OECD, 2012).

Another thing that hurts lifetime earnings of U.S. teachers is low starting salaries. A typical U.S. teacher will make as little as half the top salary for his or her situation in the first year or two. In many nations, the starting salary is only 20% to 25% below the top salary. Teachers in the U.S. who leave the profession after a few years take very little with them to their next career.

Despite this reality, each year enthusiastic American college students choose to enter teacher preparation programs in hopes of making a difference in the lives of children. Most of them are probably aware that they will earn relatively lower wages than many of their college-educated peers and even starting teachers in other industrialized countries. While their desire to help children learn may draw these new teachers into the profession, the real challenge may prove to be retaining them in the classroom year after year without adequate increases in compensation.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2012). Education at a glance 2012: OECD indicators. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

David Berliner and I have joined with 15 bright young PhDs to expose 50 of the myths & lies that are threatening our nation’s public schools. 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools is published by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

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