Follow Up Report: Are Teachers Really Overpaid?

overpaid teacher report feedbackWhen AOL Jobs published the story "Teachers Are Actually Overpaid, Report Says" last week, our in-boxes were flooded with notes from baffled, offended, and irate readers. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, summed up these responses in three words: "Are you kidding?"

So AOL Jobs spoke to Weingarten, whose union represents 1.5 million educators, as well as to one of the report's co-authors, Andrew Biggs of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to address our readers' main complaints.

Are You Kidding?

"I have 15 years experience. I teach in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. I make $37,250 a year. Teachers haven't had a raise in four years. Overpaid? If my husband didn't have a decent job, I would be living in poverty." - Dawn

"She may well be underpaid," says Biggs, after hearing this comment. "We're talking about averages. And on average, teachers receive higher compensation than they would in the private sector."

Biggs and his co-author Jason Richwine argue in their report that the average public school teacher, given his or her skills, is paid more than he or she would be on the free market.

"The benefits are probably the crux of it," says Biggs. Teachers may not be overpaid if you just look solely at their salaries, he admits, but they are if you add in benefits, particularly their pensions.

The average salary of a teacher is $55,000 a year, according to Weingarten. "Sixty-two percent of teachers work a second job, because they can't support families on a teacher's salary," she says. "I'm so angry about this report, I'm stammering."

Weingarten also notes that the average pension is $35,000. The report quibbles with this statistic, however. The number allegedly factors in teachers who retired long ago, with lower salaries, as well as retirees who taught for only part of their careers.

"A third of teachers don't qualify for Social Security," Weingarten adds. "That's all they get."

Teachers Have Job Security?

"Regarding job security, my son was a teacher who just got laid off because of pullbacks in state funding.... I now believe teaching is a bad career choice for so many reasons, and am grateful my son is young enough to start fresh in the business world." - Jim C.

The average unemployment rate for public school teachers between 2005 and 2010 was 1.7 percent lower than the non-teaching average, according to the report. Biggs and Richwine calculate that this "job security" is equal to an 8.6 percent increase in salary.

"That job security premium they just hypothesized about -- it has no basis in reality, given that 300,000 teachers have been laid off since 2008," says Weingarten.

"The unemployment rate for teachers is not as bad as that for blue collar workers," she acknowledges. "It's certainly less than the 20 to 30 percent for African American men in cities," "But that's what the job security premium is? Then this is a race to the bottom."

Teaching Is Hard Work

"Have you ever had an autistic teen, a diagnosed ADHD student, a student with an auditory processing disorder, a child who is physically/mentally/sexually abused at home, a foster student, and a bunch of other "normal" kids in a room while trying to prepare them for high state tests which can determine your future job security?" - Jamie M.

The report does not claim that teachers are overpaid, given the value or difficulty of their jobs. They are allegedly overpaid simply because teachers, when let loose into the free market, can't make the same kind of cash. Teachers' degrees, mostly in education, aren't as rigorous as most other degrees, the report claims. So they're worth less in the private sector.

"At college, some people majored in finance and physics and some majored, say, in basket weaving," says Biggs. "Are you going to be shocked that the person who majors in finance makes more than the people who major in basket weaving?"

When a teacher enters the private sector, Weingarten counters, they may get paid less, but that's because they're usually doing an easier job.

Regarding the "job security premium," she asks, "Why is there not a premium for tough working conditions? For the lack of supplies and materials? For the fact that teachers work well into the night grading papers? For subsidizing kids' education?

"What this is basically doing is making think tanks look bad. You can find a statistic for any assertion you want to make."

Are These 'Cushy' Teaching Gigs Really So Coveted?

Regarding salaries, I quit my teaching job 20 years ago and began a lucrative career in pharmaceutical sales, tripling my teaching salary in two years." - Jim C.

Public school teachers are allegedly paid at above-market rates, and so Biggs and Richwine conclude that states looking to trim their budgets should study their teacher payrolls. They're "considerably higher than necessary to retain the existing teacher workforce," they write.

"Thirty to 50 percent of teachers leave in the first five years," says Weingarten. "We need to attract and retain the best and the brightest, and then you get a report like this. How are you going to attract the best?"

Weingarten believes that the report ultimately is an attack on the teacher unions that enable educators to fight to defend good benefits-- something that employees in the private sector are less able to do.

"He doesn't like that teachers still have some pensions. Some benefits," she says of Richwine, whom she recently faced on CNN. "The guy actually admitted that they're being anti-union.

"The nations that do the best are the most densely organized. Really, this is just a ruse."

Is Merit Pay The Answer?

"In your world, I'd have to live on a vent on the street. I'm pretty "average" in my school. I was at the top of my class in high school. I attended a top university -- University of Virginia. Got my masters at Va. Tech. Have the top team in our region in debate. Won the state award for Creative Writing.... Work about 80 hours a week, make 75K." - Julie H.

Biggs believes the system isn't working; many teachers are paid salaries that they would never get in the private sector, without producing good results.

"In every aspect of their economies, everything gets better, yet education is kind of meandering along," he says. "And that's not entirely the fault of the teachers. We have kids that come to school that aren't prepare to learn, rules from top-down that make it hard for teachers.

"But we can't afford books or computers, and it's not because we're spending less on education than we used to. It's the rising cost of teacher compensation squeezing out other things."

The culture should be geared toward performance, he says. Fire the bad teachers, pay the under-performing teachers less, and the high-performing teachers more.

"We don't oppose differentiating salaries," explains Weingarten, who spearheaded a program in New York that gave bonuses to schools with improving scores. "What we oppose is individual pay based on individual test scores.

"Tests provide only the tiniest snapshot, and some years a class can just have bad dynamics, bad alchemy. Does that one year make that teacher a bad teacher?" she asks. "Throwing money at teachers based on kids' test scores has never worked. Never has. Never will."

Weingarten's merit-based system in New York in fact failed to improve student achievement at all, according to a study by a Harvard economist, and the Bloomberg administration quietly ended it this year.

"Evaluation is tough to do," she says. "If it wasn't tough to do it would have been done."

What do you think? How much should teachers get paid?

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