Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thoughts on teacher pay

This week WSJ ran an op-ed by Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine who claim that public school teachers are overpaid by a whopping 52% compared to what they could earn in the private sector.  The authors concede that salaries are comparable, so one would need about a 100% difference in benefits to yield a 52% gap in total compensation.  Then things get sloppy -- unpaid summer months get labelled vacation, defined benefit pensions are converted arbitrarily to defined contribution plans, and retiree health insurance gets labelled a giveaway that one never observes in the private sector.  So what we have is a comparison of what the average teacher gets in the public sector to what a WalMart employee gets in the private sector.  The authors do note that teachers do have much more job security than private sector workers, but it is hard to assign a market value to this benefit.  Their analysis is interesting (and their full paper cites by NC State colleagues Bob Clark and Melinda Morrill) and does provide the foundation for further work on this important subject.

Another fundamental question is whether public teacher pay is sufficiently high to attract the calibre of instructors that we need to maintain the US's position as a global leader in human capital.  Biggs and Richwine note that education majors entering college score in the 40th percentile on standardized tests.  In countries such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, the education majors undergo a more rigorous selection process.  Pay in Finland is roughly the same as in the US, but the Finnish teacher salary is much closer to the average salary for college graduates than is the case in the US.  My take: growing wage inequality means greater opportunities outside of teaching for our most talented young people, so we would actually need to raise teacher salaries if we were to seriously upgrade teacher capability in future generations.

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