IN DEFENSE OF TEACHING
There are many misconceptions about teaching and teachers in general. We are demonized, abused, and blamed for the ills of society. I feel that we, as educators, have allowed that narrative to define us. I have written "In Defense of Teaching" to attack many of these misconceptions. It examines salary, benefits, sick days, "summers off", the teacher pension, tenure, unions and the discourse about education in New York and country. I hope you take something from it that encourages you to stand up for your profession the next time someone, be it a neighbor, a parent, or a politician, devalues you as a professional educator.
- 1 CONDENSED FINDINGS
- 2 INTRODUCTION AND THE DISHONESTY OF MEDIAN SALARY
- 3 “Teachers take too many sick days!”
- 4 THE PROBLEM WITH COMPARISONS
- 5 BIG, FAT, TEACHER RAISES
- 6 THE DEFERRED COST OF TEACHING
- 7 IS TEACHER HEALTH INSURANCE THE GREAT EQUALIZER?
- 8 GOLD PLATED PENSIONS
- 9 HOW MUCH DO TEACHERS REALLY MAKE?
- 10 “BUT TEACHERS ONLY WORK 8 MONTHS A YEAR!”
- 11 RETURN ON OUR (tax dollar) INVESTMENT
- 12 Each elementary teacher is worth $1,923,150
- 13 The four tenants of anti-teacher rhetoric
- 14 IN CONCLUSION
- 15 Epilogue – In Defense of Unions
Over the past ten years, teacher salaries have not outpaced inflation and, when adjusted for inflation, were higher in 1990.
Media outlets often report “median” teacher salary rather than the average (or mean). This can dishonestly and artificially inflate the communal perspective about what teacher’s get paid.
Comparing teacher salaries across a state or the nation is dishonest and agenda driven. A teacher that earned $50,000 in Ithaca, NY, would need to earn $106, 409 in New York City (Manhattan) to have the same standard of living. To present either of these two salaries as the average for all New York teachers is inaccurate.
34% of students miss 3 to 10 days of school annually for a variety of reasons including illness. Given their proximity to their students, is it really fair to ask teachers to miss fewer days due to illness than the students do?
Teacher compensation is deferred at great personal future cost. Teachers make approximately $167,146 less than those with non-teaching Masters Degrees in the first 10 years of their career. If invested over a 30-year career, this difference balloons to $1,373,843.
Teacher health insurance packages are approximately $1,936 more generous than the average private sector package annually. This difference does not neutralize a lifetime ($1,373,843) of potential lost earnings.
Comparisons of teacher compensation to private sector jobs often omit health care and pension benefits from private sector packages. This artificially inflates the value of teacher compensation in comparison.
The New York State Teachers Retirement (TRS) system is fully funded and stable.
The vast majority (85%) of income sources for the TRS derive from investment, not the taxpayer.
The average TRS benefit for all service retirees is approximately $41,000 after a long career (typically 30 years).
The TRS is an excellent benefit for New York teachers. However, teachers must live to approximately 85, well beyond the average life expectance for citizens of the U.S. (76 for men and 78 for women), to equalize the difference between teachers and other private sector workers who hold a Masters Degree.
Unlike a 401k, when a teacher dies, the TRS checks stop coming. Teachers do not own their retirement; they lease it.
All New York State teachers starting after January 1st, 2010 have a significantly less generous pension that reduces payouts, raises the retirement age to 63, and installs a fluctuating lifetime teacher contributions.
U.S. teachers spend more time at work more than any other county’s educators and do not have an egregious amount of summer time off when compared to average private sector paid vacations.
Teachers spend as much as two weeks annually of their “time off” in the summer working on their classrooms or curriculum without compensation. Also, the average teacher likely spends hundreds of their own dollars, without reimbursement, on classroom materials over the summer. American teachers provide the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars (conservatively) in uncompensated summer work and classroom supplies annually to school districts across New York.
The public discourse about how American schools rank compared to other countries has become a partisan issue rife with data manipulation, cultural insensitivity, and dishonesty.
Those who claim American schools are failing typically rely on one test (the PISA) that compares the ethnically and culturally diverse United States to single provinces in China or other countries with very different educational philosophies. American schools educate all comers: immigrants who may not speak English as their first language, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learning disabled. Many other cultures do not see the value in this approach.
Graduations rates fluctuate widely from urban to suburban districts. This speaks to the ravages of poverty, the crisis in American parenting, and the inequity of America’s accepted school funding model rather than the abilities of urban educators.
There is ample research that indicates that New York Schools rank anywhere from 4th to 9th to 10th when compared to other states.
American schools continue to have among the highest performers in the world.
9 year olds are performing a full grade level better on reading and two grade levels in math compared to the 1970’s.
There has been steady progress over the past 40 years in closing the achievement gap between Latinos, Blacks, and whites (although there is more work to do).
The educational gender gap is essentially zero.
All cohorts (the highest performers and those who struggle) have shown considerable growth in math and reading.
It is very likely that today’s children know more than their parents at the same age.
Using alternative models of value calculation, it is possible to demonstrate that each elementary teacher generates $1,923,150 of student earnings over a 30-year career.
Blaming tenure for America’s perceived educational woes is a simple to digest narrative that provides a guilt free reason for the struggles of some schools. It avoids difficult conversations about the state of parenting and poverty in America.
It is undeniable that poverty is the most significant factor in a child’s development. Politicians and bureaucrats want to fire teachers because they can’t fire poverty.
Despite the flashy headlines and misleading data, the law is quite clear: tenure is not a lifetime job appointment.
There are clear paths that New York schools use to remove teachers who are criminals, insubordinate, and ineffective. The law provides realistic timelines for removal of these teachers. Tenure does not protect teachers who commit crimes against children.
Tenure provides a fair due process, a right needed by teachers due to the content they teach and the public spotlight that is often cast upon the profession.
Schools can fire teachers for any reason they deem appropriate for the first four years of their probationary period.
It is a false narrative that educational teacher unions only exist to improve teacher wages. Data shows that teacher wages are lower today than 30 years ago when adjusted for inflation. Additionally, educational unions are positive members of their community raising millions of dollars annually for charitable causes and championing important social justice issues.
Educational unions represent the last line of defense between quality free public education and a privatized public system sought by profit driven investors. This makes them the target of some very wealthy and powerful individuals.
As is evidenced by New York’s failed teacher evaluation experiment, educational unions cannot stand in the way of a political bureaucracy that is committed to radical change. Rather, they often lead the conversation about what’s best for kids and learning.
Recent studies have shown that in states that are highly unionized, district actually fire more bad teachers and have better educational attainment when compared to states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho, and Tennessee which recently weakened their educational unions. Deconstructing educational unions measurably hurts students.
Teachers are not the problem in American education. The sophistication of the debate is.
INTRODUCTION AND THE DISHONESTY OF MEDIAN SALARY
"The United States has been "investing" in teacher pay for decades. We have a generation of first grade teachers with Masters degrees earning $60,000 per year to teach kids to watch Spot run and count to ten. In addition to extremely generous salaries they enjoy gold plated benefits and a virtual guarantee of a job for life. What we have gotten back for this investment are tumbling proficiency skills and an education system managed by educrats making obscene salaries...” Social media comment from: “W.E. Coyote”, 3/9/2015, SOURCE
Teachers are often the targets of negative attacks by angry parents, biased media coverage and ideologically driven social media commentators. So much so that teacher morale, across the country, is at a historic low. As a teacher with about 10 years experience, I was curious: am I overpaid? Do I get a lot of sick days and paid vacations? Are my healthcare and pension benefits fair? Do I only work 9 months a year? Do test scores prove that I’m not good at my job? Is it really impossible to fire a bad teacher? Are many of my teaching peers criminals? Am I a glamorized baby sitter? Are educational unions more dangerous than Al Qaeda?
Many teachers I know are hesitant to ask these questions because they are afraid of the answer. Teachers don’t know what they are worth. There is a modicum of self-doubt because, if you hear something repeated often enough, you start to believe it. After spending some time with these questions, I have come to the conclusion that all of these issues are vastly more complex than anyone seems willing to admit. There are no simple answers that neatly fit into a sound bite for the evening news or a Facebook infographic. However, if you're like me and are curious about many of the most often repeated claims about teachers, I hope the following can shed some much needed light on these important topics.
“TEACHERS PAY HAS DOUBLED IN THE PAST 50 YEARS, THE STUDENTS ARE DUMBER TODAY THAN 50 YEARS AGO…THATS GREAT TEACHER HONORS, BADGES, HYPE…180 DAYS OFF. WORK 180 DAYS x $500 = $90,000…” Social media comment from: “jackpiner”, 11/1/2011, SOURCE
One of the most contentious issues facing educators today (and there are many) revolves around compensation. The battle cry of tax and “fiscal responsibility” special interests and social media critics alike is that teachers are over-compensated for their efforts. This issue is vastly more complex than the average social media critic would admit.
Many news outlets love to print the “median” salary of teachers in their community and, either passively or directly, conclude that teachers have a good deal.
Here is an example from the Times Union in Albany, New York. They run a similar article every year. While the article itself does not come out and scream anti-teacher, it is clearly “clickbait”. The author performs the most basic analysis of the issue by calculating the median salary numbers. By definition, median is “a midpoint, with half of the teachers in a given district being paid more than the median, and half being paid less”. This is obviously different than an average.
Teacher Salaries in District X: $40,000 $45,000 $53,000 $61,000 $70,000 $71,000 $72,000
In the above example, the MEDIAN salary for teachers in District X is $61,000 but the average (or MEAN) is $57,428. The above example is simplified (only 7 teachers) and likely does not reflect an increasing difference in median and mean in America’s schools. As the Baby Boom generation retires in large numbers across the profession, teaching has felt the impact. Consequently, many schools have a large number of people at the top of salary schedules (with larger, experience driven salaries after a long career) retiring that are replaced by newer teachers, on the bottom of the salary schedules. This leads to an even more stilted median while the mean may actually be much lower. This begs the question: Why do newspapers use median over mean? If the paper’s goal is to inform the public about teacher compensation, wouldn’t the better measurement be the mean? In my opinion, newspapers use median because it is likely easier to calculate and often higher than the mean and, consequently, more sensationalistic. It confirms the pre-conceived narrative that many people have (and the newspaper likely shares): teachers make too much.
Here is a similar article from 2012 simply titled “Region’s teachers do well in pay”. This is obviously even more judgmental. What, exactly, does “do well” mean? The editor of the headline has already established, consciously or otherwise, what it means to “do well” and applied that conclusion to this article.
“Teachers take too many sick days!”
“My brother-in-law "teaches" math in Ohio. He got his MA in PE. When I asked him how that would help him teach math his reply was simple -- "Why should I take advanced calculus when I can take advanced golf and get paid the same?" After 22 years, he is paid $78,000 per year and has more days off than he works every year. Rough life!” Social media comment from: “Johnny Appleseed V”, 11/1/2011, SOURCE
Brought on by a nationwide teacher shortage, (Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Michigan, North Carolina, etc.) newspapers have been using teacher sick day reports as an additional opportunity to drive a preconceived narrative about teachers and their compensation. Nationally, articles use statically calculation, which admittedly “fudges [teacher absence] a little bit higher, as far as attendance”. In New York, a recent article in the Post Star (out of Glens Falls) created a detailed breakdown of how many days’ teachers miss from illness and training in their community. Within the article, the reporter (Michael Goot) attempted to fashion an explosive narrative about how often teachers aren’t in school. For example:
“Regular teachers were missing from area classrooms an average of 3 days during the first 3 months of school because of illness, extended leaves and in-school training, according to an analysis of attendance records.”
Inevitably, Mr. Goot compares teaching to the private sector and how the “private sector differs”. The narrative is clear: teachers miss a lot of work compared to the private sector. The paper doubled down on this assertion a few days later with an editorial that proclaimed “Schools should seek ways to reduce teacher absenteeism”.
The problems with this analysis are obvious. First of all, the Mr. Goot cherry-picked the data he used to make the point that “schools should… reduce teacher absenteeism” by only analyzing data from September through Thanksgiving. Secondly, Mr. Goot tries to highlight the more explosive “claims” in the article while burying the statically reality of the data: in the first three months most teachers missed one or two days of school. This is a clear sin of omission. There simply isn’t much to report here. Given how much curriculum there is to be redesigned with the Common Core transitions and other important trainings that teachers must attend at the start of a school year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that teachers miss a day or two. Additionally, schools are incubators of illness (somewhere around 34% of students miss 3 – 10 days of school per year) and it begs the question: Is this really a news story? Thousands of sick kids go to school every day, often times because their parents can’t afford to keep them home. Are teachers impervious to the common cold, flu, stomach bug, etc.? Is it really fair to ask teachers to miss less days due to illness than the students do? On any given day, half of the students in my class are either in the midst of a cold/virus/flu/stomach bug or are recently recovering from one. Can the private sector, that the Post Star gleefully compares teachers too, make the same claims about illness in their work place as the CDC does about schools and the country’s children? Additionally, I would wager that teacher absences aren’t more voluminous than they were 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. Kids get sick. They always have and they always will. Teachers get sick from the kids they teach. This article betrays Mr. Goot’s, and the Post Star’s, complete ignorance about what it’s like to actually be a teacher or work in a school. Ask ANY teacher: it is often more work to write substitute plans for an absence than it is to actually come to work and do your job sick. If a teacher misses school due to illness, in virtually every instance, they are REALLY sick and don’t belong around children.
THE PROBLEM WITH COMPARISONS
“I went to what people considered were top k-12 schools and i can say that my teachers were very very very average. However, that is comparing them to other people with college degrees. Compared to other teachers, they were probably the best. This stuff isn't rocket science. Your job as a teacher is to teach what is required to reach the results your bosses want. Your job is not to decide what type of education kids need. An education major does not qualify you to decide what a child should or shouldn't learn.” Social media comment from: “Justin Jordan”, 6/3/2015, SOURCE
While I find the previously mentioned reporting dishonest (or at least misleading), teacher advocates are also capable of deceptions. In other words, statistics can be used that make teachers look underpaid compared to people with similar or, in this case, dramatically less education. Here is a chart I created looking at publicly available data for teachers, New York City sanitation workers, lawyers at small firms, and pediatricians.
And here is the same data graphically represented:
What are some conclusions I can draw from this data? After five and ½ years, NYC Sanitation workers make more money than the median salary of most teachers. Additionally, after eight years, lawyers, even at small firms, make over $40,000 dollars more than most teachers’ median salary. And pediatricians, the least compensated doctors by median, double and triple all teachers starting or median income. My conclusion, based on their education, is that TEACHERS ARE UNDERPAID!
The limitations of this type of analysis are fairly obvious. I have cherry-picked the professions in which to compare teachers to prove my larger point (that teachers are undercompensated). Additionally, when comparing national data like this, it ignores local cost of living and location. Some places are more expensive to live and, consequently, the analysis becomes suspect. Take New York City (Manhattan) compared to Central New York for example. Simple cost of living calculations tell us that, when compared to Central New York, groceries (22%), Housing (288%), and utilities (49%) are much more expensive in New York City (Manhattan). Consequently, if I earned $50,000 in Ithaca, NY, I would need to earn $106, 409 in New York City (Manhattan) to have the same standard of living. In fact, New York City typically tops the list of most expensive place in the world to live. Is it really surprising that teaching salaries in New York City must be higher due to a higher cost of living?
CNN has a great cost of living calculator that is fun to play with. A clear pattern emerges: Northeastern and West Coast locations (along with most urban environments) are more expensive to live (cost of living) than most of the country. This may not be an overly surprising conclusion but it sheds light on, no matter who is performing it (pro-teacher or anti-teacher), the difficulties of national comparisons. In some places, it costs more to live so salaries, in general, are higher. To compare a teacher in Manhattan’s salary to a teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina is a futile exercise and only serves to drive a preordained agenda and not provide a helpful analysis. They are different places with different cost expectations.
This agenda driven analysis is clearly on display in this “article” intoning that New York teachers make an average of $76,409. Ignoring for the moment that the author does not actually cite any evidence to support this claim, it is evident that the analysis includes all teachers across New York State. Again, salary expectations in New York City or Long Island are vastly different than in Central New York. Consequently, salaries in New York City will be higher when compared to the rest of New York. To put all regions of the state into one average will ensure that New York’s average is much higher than the rest of the country. Consequently, the average becomes a useless number when comparing New York to other states. That does not stop ideologically driven teacher critics from using this data regularly to “prove” that teachers are overcompensated.
BIG, FAT, TEACHER RAISES
“You wanna a higher salary but the difference between people that work for a corporation and a teacher is that one of them can actually help a company that attempts to make a PROFIT and the other doesn't make anybody money. That is HOW you earn more money, by working somewhere where the higher ups can actually make money. That is the issue with K-12 education and teachers demanding a pay raise. The only way you get a raise is if you boost people's taxes. My parents taught me a lot at home because they knew teachers weren't the smartest people in their subject and I learned that in HS with the exception of 3 or 4 teachers I had. In elementary school, my parents probably taught me more than the teachers.” Social media comment from: “Nolan Hughes”, 11/1/2011, SOURCE
Another popular battle cry of the anti-teacher crowd is that teachers are overpaid when compared to inflation. Much like median analysis or national mean comparisons, using inflation as a benchmark to determine teacher compensation is problematic. I can provide numerous examples of articles, studies, and commentary that show either inflation hurts teachers (here, here, here, here) or that teaching salaries have outpaced inflation (here, here, here, here). How can it be both? How can inflation both hurt teachers and, at the same time, not impact them at all (compared to the private sector)?
Obviously the problem lies in agenda driven analysis and the complexity of the issue. Inflation differs from state-to-state and we have already seen the problems with nationally aggregated analysis. However, I believe, by drilling down to a more personal example, I can illustrate a fundamental truth about earnings and inflation for teachers: teacher compensation is deferred at great personal future cost.
Below is an analysis of my personal compensation (teaching salary) from the district that I work at over the first 10 years of my career. I don’t mind sharing this information because anti-teacher groups have already posted all public employee salary in New York on the Internet.
While I’m not an economist or statistician, I think it is apparent that my annual raises are within a percent (give or take) of the national inflation numbers. Additionally, it has taken 10 years for my teaching compensation to break the $50,000 dollar plateau. This is contrary to both narratives, either pro or anti teacher, that teachers are being hurt by or immune to inflation over the past ten years. It also highlights the problems with state averages for teaching salaries as mentioned previously.
THE DEFERRED COST OF TEACHING
However, inflation only tells part of the story. When my salary is compared to average earnings for someone with six years of education (Master’s Degree candidates), a more complex portrait emerges. According to a recent study performed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the projected average starting salaries for Master’s Degree Candidates is approximately $68,246 when averaging the fields of Engineering, Computer Science, Business, Math & Sciences, and Communications. If we take this average and adjust it for inflation back to my first year of teaching in 2006, we can begin to approximate the deferred cost of teaching.
Over the first ten years of my career, the difference between my salary and the average starting salary of a Master’s Degree candidate (adjusted for inflation) is approximately $167,146. This means the average starting salary for a Master’s degree graduate would make $167,146 more than I did in the FIRST ten years of my career. To further the analysis, let’s say that this money was invested into the stock market and earned average returns over those ten years. Average returns can be tricky. As we all know, 2007 and 2008 were very bad years for Wall Street. To be conservative, let’s assume that this money earned a 7% return.
All total, and using some fairly conservative numbers, in the first 10 years of my career, I have earned $265,584 less than someone with a similar education in virtually any other field. This is only the first ten years. What would this look like over a 30-year career?
The difference between my salary and the Master’s degree average (adjusted for 2% inflation and no additional private sector raises) would be $1,373,843 assuming a 7% return on investment. This illustrates the deferred cost of teaching. Teachers take a lower salary in the first half of their careers in exchange for health care, pensions, and salary considerations later in their careers. The escalating teacher raises evidenced in years 14 – 19 are examples of this deferred compensation. Even with this escalating pay structure, it still takes 19 years for the teaching salary to pass the adjusted for inflation Master’s Degree average only to fall (and stay) behind again in the 23rd year.
There are certain variables I have held constant here that could be problematic to this analysis. I have not adjusted the teacher compensation for inflation. My reasoning here is that this particular teacher’s contract (the contract that I work under) has seen little change in its salary levels over the past 10 years due to the Great Recession. This could certainly change over the next 15 years. Additionally, I have assumed a 7% return on the difference between the teaching salary and the Master’s Degree average. This could be smaller or larger, depending on the ups and downs of the market. Inflation could be higher or lower over the next 10 years. Also, this is the contract that I work under. Some contracts have higher teacher salaries (and some have much lower). However, even if some of these variables change and the $1.3 million in deferred compensation goes up or down, I stand by this conclusion: Compared to similarly educated peers, teachers leave hundreds thousands of dollars on the table over a career. This is money teachers can never get back. It is this reality that brings me to my next point: benefits.
IS TEACHER HEALTH INSURANCE THE GREAT EQUALIZER?
“…75k is under-selling it. Their pension and healthcare probably amounts to 40k additional using fair accounting principles. Their true pay of 115k for 8 months of work represents an annual salary of around $170,000 compared directly to normal people.” Social media comment from: “bwik”, 3/28/2016, SOURCE
Given the above data, anti-teacher special interests would likely counter that health care and pension benefits more than compensate for the rippling impact of deferred compensation. These same groups refer to this as “hidden” compensation.
Let’s examine this claim further. Last year I paid approximately $3,500 for my family’s health insurance plan. The contract that I work under allows for 80% of my family’s health care plan to be covered by the district. Consequently my school paid $14,000 of the total $17,500 health insurance plan for my family last year. These costs are not fixed and may rise (or fall) from year to year as do my contributions to the plan. Many anti-teacher groups would apply this $14,000 to my salary to indicate the parity of the private vs. public sector income. This would be the so-called “hidden” compensation. A complication with this analysis is the incorrect assumption that private sector workers, with educational experience similar to teachers, are not afforded any type of health care package by their employer. Hence, anti-teacher activists cherry-pick their data by adding the cost of a health insurance package on to teacher compensation but not on to private sector compensation packages.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has recent data that can help us understand this complicated issue. March 2013 data indicates that private industry around the size of my school (100 to 499 workers) pay about $862 per month per employee for health insurance. Employees pay about $435. Therefore, per year, the employer contributes about $10,344 (66%) and the employee contributes about $5,220 (34%) for a total of $15,564 per employee for health insurance.
As with any national comparisons, there are some problems with this data. It does not account geographic location or cost of living. Health insurance is more expensive where I live which may skew this data towards public compensation. Additionally, some plans have more benefits than others (driving costs higher) while some schools pay more (or far less) for their employee’s health insurance. It also doesn't take into consideration co-pays, deductibles, prescription drug benefits, etc.; costs usually picked up by the employee. However, this data puts to rest the notion that public sector employees are receiving an overly generous health care package. In this example, my district is above the national average. Some districts will be below the national average. Either way, a public vs. private sector difference of $1,936 annually does not neutralize a lifetime ($1,373,843) of potential lost earnings.
GOLD PLATED PENSIONS
“The TRUTH is that teachers are lazy government employees. The ones I know do very few of the things mentioned in the article. Work at 7am? Please. They work 8am to 3pm, unless we get snow then they stay home. My pension (I work at a hospital) was recently frozen. Teachers can start whining when that kind of thing happens to them. Until then, shut your lazy entitled mouths.” Comment from: FirstPatriot, 11/19/2014, SOURCE
But what about those fat pensions? Nothing seems to drive more angst and anger than teacher pensions in New York State. Anti-teacher publications in New York often run hatchet pieces like this and this about the “gold plated pensions” and six figure nest eggs that teachers receive when they retire. This is, of course, misleading at best and clearly agenda driven. It implies that the minute a teacher retires (at 55 of course) they receive a check for a million dollars. Newspapers print individual pension earnings. The Empire Center, a tax “advocacy” group, deliberately misrepresents the stability of the system and average pension size while claiming, with a straight face, they are “an independent… non-partisan think tank”. Websites play games with average pensions. School Board Association call for radical changes. It goes on and on.
While I can’t speak for all the pensions across the country, the New York State Teachers Retirement system is fully funded, and stable. This report, prepared by the National Council on Teacher Quality, raises some excellent questions and problems about national teacher pensions. However, New York earns high marks by their standards. A recent asset allocation report also point out the stability of the fund. Additionally, the vast majority (85%) of income sources for the plan derive from investment, not the taxpayer. The system is designed for employers to pay 11% towards their employee’s retirement. As recently as 2003, employers paid less than 1% due to the success of the fund. This number spiked during the Great Recession but is now headed back towards the 11% threshold (currently 13%). Despite sensational reporting to the contrary, the average benefit for all service retirees is approximately $41,000 after a long career (typically 30 years).
But what about the claim that pensions are the great equalizers for teacher compensation when compared to the private sector? As with other compensation comparisons, it may be useful to personalize this issue. As I move forward with my career, here are my realistic retirement options:
If I retired at 57 (clearly the best financial option) my deferred compensation could be up to $1,512,000. That’s a big number. Many anti-teacher activists would point to these six and seven figure numbers that I potentially could collect in retirement as evidence to how good teachers really have it. Again, like with the health care question, many critics will dishonestly point to the teacher’s pension as evidence of overcompensation while simultaneously ignoring that reality that many private sector companies also contribute to their employee’s 401k. As with median income, mean, inflation, and health benefits, let’s take a closer look at these numbers.
As these calculations demonstrate over the course of my career, I will contribute about $13,764 to my pension and the district I work for will contribute about $208,549 ($6,951 yearly average). This seems like a pretty good deal for me. What does this look like in the private sector with 401k’s? Calculating the average employee/employer contribution can be tricky due to the lack of aggregated data. There are definitely companies that are more (or less) generous then the below calculations but I was most comfortable with the average averages given recent reporting.
As these calculations demonstrate, over the course of this career, the average Master Degree graduate will contribute about $69,461 to their 401k ($2,305 annually) and the private company for which they work would contribute about $92,676 ($3,089 yearly average). These contribution numbers, although conservative, come fairly close to some averages reported within the last few years (post-Great Recession). Clearly teachers do better, contribution-wise, than the average Master’s Degree graduate. So the question becomes, is this the great equalizer?
HOW MUCH DO TEACHERS REALLY MAKE?
At the end of this salary, health benefit, and pension/401k analysis, here is the fairest calculation I feel I can make:
Salary + Health Benefit + Retirement Contribution = Total Annual Compensation Package
Formula: Salary + (Total value of Health Benefits – Benefits paid by Employee) + (Retirement 401k or Pension paid by Employer – Benefits paid by Employee) = Total Annual Compensation Package
Here are breakdowns of both my salary and the Master’s Degree average at the start, mid-point and end of both respective careers.
When considering salary, health care, and retirement benefits, there is a considerable difference between public and private sector, favoring the private sector, which gradually evens out over the course of a long career. At no point does annual compensation overwhelmingly favor the public sector and even when it does, it is only by a few hundred dollars. It is important to remember, however, that this is simply annual compensation. The early separation between public and private sector compensation at the start of a teacher’s career continues to ripple out over lifetime compensation. Over the course of a 30-year career, the difference between teacher salaries and the Masters degree average, when compounded with 7% return was $1,373,843. While the New York State Teacher’s Retirement is an excellent benefit for teachers, there are several inescapable factors that do not make it the great equalizer it appears to be. In my case, I have to actually live until 85 to collect enough of my pension to close the gap with the private sector. The average life expectancy for men in the United States is about 76 years so there is no guarantee I will collect anywhere near $1.5 million from the NYSTRS over the course of my retirement. Additionally, this $1,512,000 is not a piggy bank that I can raid at any time. I will receive checks every month that equal $54,000 annually (or possibly higher based on C.O.L.A.). Unlike a 401k, when I die, the checks stop coming. I do not own my retirement, I lease it. On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that teachers who started working after January 1st, 2010 (and every teacher who follows them) will have a significantly less generous pension that reduces payouts, raises the retirement age to 63, and install fluctuating lifetime teacher contributions. This will serve to tilt the compensation analysis even more towards the private sector in the future for newer teachers.
Teacher compensation can be tricky to calculate, especially when compared to the private sector. It is easy to rely on incomplete (or dishonest) analysis, which can show either that teachers are over or under compensated, depending on your political perspective. There are some financial considerations that make it hard to forecast (inflation, health care cost, pension contribution rates, raises for both pubic and private sectors, etc.) which leaves any analysis with a slightly incomplete picture. Having said that, I feel the above data demonstrates the deferred nature of teacher compensation, the long-term penalties educators pay for their chosen career, and that teachers are not overpaid when compared to comparably educated peers.
“BUT TEACHERS ONLY WORK 8 MONTHS A YEAR!”
“Did the study also take into account the amount of VACATION that teachers get? Two and half months, or so, in summer, a week at Christmas, a week around Easter, possibly a "mid-winter" week off, and every holiday known to man add up to infinitely more time off than any private sector employee gets. Maybe that study that compared hourly pay, should have factored in the far fewer hours PER YEAR that teachers work compared to everyone else.” Social media comment from: “Chucklepants”, 11/4/2011, SOURCE
But what about those long vacations?
Another battle cry of the anti-teacher crowd revolves around the school calendar. Commentators will look at the above data and say something like:
"“You are forgetting teachers only get paid for 9 months of the year. Yes, on a total salary basis, teachers are paid less than other professionals because they don’t work as much. I can’t really see the unfairness in this… My guess is that for many teachers this is a feature, not a bug — that as many are attracted by having the summer off as are harmed by it.”
This is factually wrong on several points.
This year, my school operated from September 1st through June 23rd. No matter how you slice it, that’s not 9 months but 10. But what about July and August?
As with other reporting or commentary about teaching compensation, pundits seem to forget that the private sector also gets time off for holidays and vacations. It’s only fair to consider the private sector paid time off as well. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that 84% percent of private industry workers received vacation, holiday, or personal leave and 72% percent of workers received both paid holidays and paid vacations. Additionally, the BLS indicates that mid-career private sector employees receive between three to four weeks annually of paid vacations and holiday leave. So what does this tell us? By these numbers, the private sector can take approaching a month (by average) of either vacation time or paid holiday leave annually. For argument’s sake, let’s say the private sector could take much (if not most) of July off (and be paid for it). What about August?
I recently surveyed teachers at my school about summer activities during their “time off”. Over two years, about 171 teachers kept track of how much time they spent working on their classrooms or on curriculum projects for which they were not compensated during the summer. My school values an average seven-hour summer workday at about $200. Most teachers get, on average, one summer workday per year from the school to work on their classrooms or other projects. The question I had for these teachers was: how much additional work do you do in the summer without compensation? I was amazed by the response. Over a two-year period (summers of 2013 and 2014) those 171 respondents worked 12,730 hours. This is the equivalent of 1,818 seven-hour workdays or an average of two weeks of uncompensated summer work per teacher, much of which is performed in their classrooms at school. This summer work saved the district approximately $363,711 in uncompensated summer work days. Please note, this is not a calculation as to how many hours teachers spend working during the school year outside of our day (weekends, evenings, mornings, etc.). That number would be vastly higher. This is just summertime uncompensated work.
Out of curiosity, I also asked these teachers how much out of pocket they spend on materials and supplies for their classrooms in preparation for the school year. Again, I was amazed at the results. These 171 teachers spent $35,377 on their classrooms or curriculum over the summer. These are out of pocket, unreimbursed expenses. That’s $35,377 out of the pockets of 171 teachers ($206 on average). This does not include money spent by these teachers during the school year on their classrooms. Once again, that number would be much higher.
This is, admittedly, a small pool (171) of teachers. It should be noted I work in a “high performing”, fairly affluent district in upstate New York. Imagine what this number would look like aggregated across New York (700 schools and 200,000 teachers~) or the United States (thousands of schools and 3.5 million teachers)? American teachers are literally working for free in the summer and are likely providing the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in uncompensated summer work and classroom supplies.
Teachers may not go to school in the summer, but they are far from vacationing. They are working in their classrooms, designing curriculum, attending professional development conferences (often that they pay for), and shelling out their own dollars to ready their classrooms for the coming school year. Additionally, recent reporting indicates that, while school is in session, U.S. teachers work more than any other county’s educators. It is time to end this false narrative of the lazy educator loafing around in the summer with three months off. It simply isn’t true. What is true, however, is that when school is not in session, teachers continue to work. They just aren’t paid for it.
RETURN ON OUR (tax dollar) INVESTMENT
“Pay does not matter until you consider performance. And as long as teachers insist upon being in government employee unions and electing liberals who shield them from performance based reviews, I have no sympathy for their quest for more pay. The bottom line is that great performance = great pay. Until teachers are willing to prove that they are providing a great education, they are going to get paid like run of the mill government employees. Teachers, wake up. The liberals treat you just like the people who work in the driver's license bureau and want you to vote like the people who work in the driver's license bureau.” Social media comment from: “Bernd Harzog”, 12/15/2013, SOURCE
Another common complaint is that, despite high levels of educational spending, teachers in New York and beyond aren’t very good at their jobs and schools are failing. In other words, the taxpayer return on investment with American schools is low. The media has accepted the narrative that American schools are in crisis and that “once a storied success is now a mockery at best.” Others viscerally disagree. A simple Google search on this topic will revel widely different perspectives and data.
So which is it? Are American schools floundering or providing a comprehensive education? It can’t be both. Like compensation, there are vastly different perspectives on the “failure” of American schools.
First of all, it’s important to recognize that No Child Left Behind required states to gather vastly more data about student performance than historically was available. This leads to a fair question: did we ever really know how well American kids were doing before we started collecting more than just a few data points? Beyond that, many commentaries about the failure of American schools rely on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA aspires to assess 15-year-old students in math, reading, and science across 70 different countries. Results typically show American students performing at lower levels than Asia and European countries. Typically, those who believe this assessment demonstrate American educational deficiencies, will point out how America ranks behind Liechtenstein and Estonia (or other similarly small nations).
Putting aside the inherit racial and cultural insensitivities with that tactic, what does this assessment really tell us? Frankly, not much. Average performance as an indicator is problematic at best. We have already seen the problem with averages when comparing compensation across the country. The same can be said of academic performance. Although American average performance in math and science is lower than many other countries on the PISA, when comparing the highest performers, America does very well. In other words, American schools continue to have among the highest performers in the world. These students go on to be the world’s scientists and innovators. Additionally, if America could cherry-pick individual high performing regions, like Massachusetts, as China does, American rankings skyrocket. The PISA may be well intentioned but, as can so often be the case with wide ranging data, the popularly accepted conclusions leave a great deal to be desired.
Furthermore, to compare a nation as ethnically diverse as America (with over 300 million people) to Singapore, single provinces (or cities) in China, and Estonia is a fool’s errand. American schools educate all comers: immigrants who may not speak English as their first language, the poor, the disadvantaged, the learning disabled. American teachers believe that every child can learn, go to college and should have that opportunity. Americans believe, for better or worse, that education is the great societal equalizer. In many European countries, the decision as to a student’s academic future is often decided by Middle School tests that track students into college readiness or vocational preparation. To an American educator, this is likely an abhorrent proposition, at least at such a young age.
Additionally, many reformers like to hold up Finland as a panacea to what can fix the American educational system (Finland does very well on the PISA). However, on closer examination, to adopt the Finnish model throughout America would be a radical ideologically shift from current American educational practices. Finnish schools are guaranteed an equal allocation of resources without consideration of location or wealth of community. All children in Finland has access to childcare, health care, and pre-school by law and at no cost. Education is completely free, from pre-k through college, for all who live in Finland. These ideas are very far from what the average American would be comfortable with.
Another popular indicator used to condemn American schools is graduation rates. According to some commentators, 25% of American students won’t graduate from High School or aren’t college ready. This is a complex issue that has been simplified to a newsworthy sound bite. Recently, graduation rates across the nation have increased. New York’s gradation rate is 77% and 39% were considered ready for college according to the College Board. But what does that mean exactly? 1 in 4 students in New York don’t graduate? Less than half of New York students are ready for college?
Therein lies the problem with statistical averages across a geographically large state with a sizeable, diverse population and huge socioeconomic realities between rural, urban, and suburban environments. The school I work in has a 96% gradation rate, as do many of the suburban schools around me. The urban schools near me have a 64% and a 53% graduation rate respectively. 96% and 64% are separated by less than five miles. Does this mean that the urban teachers and schools near me are 30% worse at their jobs than the suburban ones? Obviously not. It speaks to the ravages of poverty and the inequity of America’s accepted school funding model. Much like average salary, Using these scores to paint a broad stroke picture of American education is problematic at best and dishonest at worse.
On the other hand, there is just as much evidence to support that New York, and American schools, are doing a good job. There is ample research that indicates that New York Schools rank anywhere from 4th to 9th to 10th when compared to other states. Using the National Assessment of Education Progress, several important indicators show the progress the American educational system is making. 9 year olds are performing a full grade level better on reading and two grade levels in math compared to the 1970’s. There has been steady progress over the past 40 years in closing the achievement gap between Latinos, Blacks, and whites (although there is more work to do). The educational gender gap is essentially zero. All cohorts (the highest performers and those who struggle) have shown considerable growth in math and reading. It is very likely that today’s children know more than their parents at the same age. Another indicator, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, show that American students have improved their performance every four years (how often the study is tabulated) since 1995 and are within a few percentage points of the “global leaders”. Educational attainment is way up while those with less than a High School education is way down (43% since the 1950’s).
It’s also important to point out that none of these positive trends mean we have solved the very real problems of inequity, poverty, bad parenting, and yes, bad teaching. However, that doesn’t mean that the sky is falling in our educational system either. The only absolute I feel the debate about American school performance has established is just how dishonest this conversation has become. Statistics, like the NEAP I use above, can also be used to illustrate “…that far too many American public schools are failing our students...”. It’s an insanely complex issue and, depending on your personal ideology, you are likely to see what you want from the data.
Each elementary teacher is worth $1,923,150
“It really does not matter what evaluation method is used. If a teacher is near the top, great; if not, the teacher needs to improve. One can be for or against any particular method, but all great teachers are near the top in any method used.” Social media comment from: “ericpollock”, 5/10/2011, SOURCE
There are also alternative ways to calculate educational return on investment as well. The annual salary of a High School gradate is somewhat tricky to pin down. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median weekly earnings of those with a High School diploma is $678. By using the BLS’s numbers, that would average out, over 52 weeks, to approximately $35,256 per year. The BLS points out that additional degrees add additional value to median salary. There are several different takes on it but, by and large, the $35,256 number seems to be close enough. So, if we accept that a High School Diploma is worth $35,256 per year, we can calculate a provocative alternative value to classroom teachers.
Let us imagine a hypothetical High School graduate. He has a High School Diploma and makes an annual salary of $35,256 (our median above). Lets examine his first few years of elementary school to see if we can quantify the value his teachers add to his future earnings.
First, lets divide his High School diploma into 13 pieces (Kindergarten through 12th grade). Each year, his teachers add approximately $2,712 to his median annual High School graduate salary of $35,256 in adulthood ($35,256/13). American schools operate on a philosophy that each year stacks on top of the previous year. Competency assessments (running reading assessments, math tests, Regents exams, etc.) are given annually to make sure students are “getting it”. If students aren’t “getting it” they are asked to repeat a grade or a course. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that each of the 13 years of schooling are important in their own way and deserve equal share of the $35,256. If school was in session for 180 days (New York State requirement), 36 weeks a year, 7 hours a day (or 35 hours per week), with 1,260 hours of instruction annually, we can start to approximate a value added to a High School education for each individual elementary school teacher.
Typically, students in elementary school stay with their core area teacher (Math, Science, English, Social Studies), or teachers in grades 3 – 5, for most of the day and have a daily hour long special area class like Physical Education (P.E.), Art, Computer Studies, or Music. If there are approximately 35 hours of instruction per week, this means that about 5 hours are spent with special area teachers and the remaining time, 30 hours, is spent with core area teachers.
If core area teachers see their students for 30 hours in a week, that calculates out to about 1,080 hours school per year (30 hours X 36 weeks). For a special area teacher, this number would be 36 hours per special area. Therefore, an elementary core area teacher logically adds 85.7% (or about $2,324) of the $2,712 of the total value for a High School diploma per student. Special area teachers would add the remaining 14.3% or $388.
However, the calculations cannot stop there. According to the Census Bureau, 88% of the population, by age 25, will have a High School diploma or higher. Within that 88%, about 55.5% will only have a High School Diploma, about 20.5% will have a Bachelor’s Degree, and 12% will have an advanced degree like a Master’s or a Doctorate. These numbers seem to match up with other reporting on the topic. A core area elementary teacher typically has around 25 students in their class each year. Therefore, the ratios of the above data translates into something like this:
About 3 (out of 25) students will achieve less than a High School Diploma. About 14 students will achieve a High School Diploma or equivalent. About 5 students will achieve a Bachelor’s Degree. About 3 students will achieve a Masters Degree or higher.
Lets take another look at the Bureau of Labor Statics data again.
Another way to look at this data is as follows:
So, if an elementary core area teacher adds $2,324 for each student by the calculations above, what does this mean for students who achieve beyond a High School diploma?
Our initial calculations divided the median salary of a High School graduate by the 13 years of school. If we continue to operate on the assumption that each year of school builds on top of the previous, we can make a similar calculation for those with higher levels of educational attainment. For example:
Through these calculations, the annual core area teacher contribution to median salary is approximately $64,105. This translates, over the course of an average 30-year teaching career to $1,923,150 in value added per core area elementary teacher. Using the same calculation for special area teachers (Art, P.E., Music, Computer Studies) we find an even larger number. Special area teachers see students less often but typically teach all the students in an entire elementary school. Given that my lifetime salary earnings over a 30-year career (calculated above) equal $1,800,234, this serves as another metric that indicates, at worst, that teachers are not grossly overpaid when considering the societal return on investment communities receive from schools and educators.
The four tenants of anti-teacher rhetoric
- Tenant One: Teachers are the most important factor in a child’s academic success – Page 36 - Tenant Two: Tenure makes it impossible to fire bad teachers – Page 38 - Tenant Three: Tenure allows our schools to be filled with bad teachers and threats to children – Page 46 - Tenant Four: The only way to solve this crisis is to end tenure – Page 50
Given the above analysis, I feel very comfortable now answering my own questions. Teachers are not overpaid or overcompensated. Teachers do not have outrageous time off and, when they aren’t in school they are likely working for free. Test scores do not define teachers. Teachers can be fired it they do a bad job and put in jail if they do something illegal; tenure or not. Teachers are not the root of all that is wrong with American education.
Unfortunately, as true as I may believe these conclusions to be, it doesn’t hide the fact that there are true emergencies in education. Young, bright, college gradates don’t want to be teachers anymore. The rancor of the educational debate has claimed an unexpected victim: the future of teacher preparation. They have seen the abuse teachers have taken over the past ten years and moved on to different fields. This can only lead to less qualified educators in our classrooms. America has a crippling social inequity problem that is not going away. Lastly, American education is under assault from private, moneyed special interests.
Rather than focusing on the true emergencies of education, we have distracted ourselves with questions about teacher compensation and time off. We have terrified ourselves with stories of teacher criminality. We have margined the impact of poverty and neglect on academic achievement. We diminish ourselves by believing firing a few bad teachers will solve our problems.
Teachers are not the problem. The sophistication of the debate is.
It is easy to blame teachers for societal ills but that won’t get us any closer to a solution to the very real problems many school have in America. As teachers we need to stop believing the rhetoric about our compensation, the disparaging commentary about our performance and, most importantly, stop feeling sorry for ourselves. Teachers need to become the activists they once were and advocate for the solutions that will make schools better places for children. We have accepted the corporatization of our curriculum, the demonization of our abilities, and the questioning of our intelligence. Teachers and administrators are the only true advocates for children in our educational systems and we need to start collectively acting like it. If we don’t do it, who will?