The American tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries

According to a recent analysis, compared to an average teacher, a good teacher (in the 84th percentile) generates as much as $400,000 in increased future earnings for her class of 20 students. So if we define the benefits of teachers in financial terms alone, it would appear that paying six figures to attract and retain great teachers in the classroom might be defensible given the three- to four-fold return on that investment for society.

So why don’t we pay teachers more?

One might assume it’s because we invest too little in public education. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. As I note in my latest column in Educational Leadership, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that in the last 40 years the United States has more than doubled its spending on K–12 education and now outspends almost every other country in the world—devoting 4 percent of GDP to K–12 education compared with, for example, Japan’s 2.6 percent.

Strangely, though, while more dollars were funneled to education, average teacher salaries actually declined about 2 percent per year since 1970 when calculated in terms of per capita GDP. U.S. teacher salaries now rank fourth from the bottom among 34 competitor countries in terms of teachers’ relative spending power.

It’s probably no coincidence that this decline in salaries occurred at the same time that U.S. schools went on a hiring spree. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of teachers increased by 46 percent, more than twice the rate of student enrollment growth (21 percent). As a result, teacher-student ratios fell from 18.7 to 15.7. However, had they remained constant and funding increases had been funneled into teacher salaries, the average teacher would now make $78,574, instead of $52,578.

Class-size reduction initiatives have been one of the driving forces in creating our uniquely American teaching corps of low-salaried classroom teachers teaching smaller classes amid a supporting cast of higher-paid specialists. Yet as John Hattie notes in Visible Learning, reducing class sizes—from say, 25 to 15 students—still has only a small effect on student achievement. And even that small benefit assumes that teacher quality remains constant as districts scramble to fill vacancies for teachers.

Certainly, smaller classes make managing behavior and grading papers less burdensome for teachers. But when given the choice between having a few more students and making a few thousand dollars more per year, most rank-and-file teachers would gladly accept the larger classes and paychecks. As Marquerite Roza, a researcher at the University of Washington, reports in her book Educational Economics, a study in Washington State asked teachers if they preferred a $5,000 raise, class size reduction, a teacher’s aide, or increased preparation time (four investments of roughly equal value). Fully 83 percent of teachers said they preferred a raise over class-size reduction, 88 percent preferred a raise to a teacher’s aide, and 69 percent preferred the raise to increased preparation time.

While no one goes into teaching to get rich, it’s clear that great teachers are worth a great deal more than most are currently paid. So perhaps it’s time we re-think our approach to smaller classes (and smaller teacher salaries) so that we can find and reward great teachers with salaries that reflect their real benefit to students and society.


  • koloradokyd says:

    When I read “While no one goes into teaching to get rich” I think of Tevey in Fiddler on the Roof saying, “I know that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either!”

  • Viola Alford says:

    The American Tradeoff: More teachers, lower salaries isn’t really a trade off. I teach because is my mission to make sure each child gets a quality education so they can face the challenges of the real world. Budget cuts affect teachers the most. Increasing class size does not benefit the teacher or the students and reducing class size and hiring more teachers also affects the teacher and the students. I realize it takes a lot of manpower to run a district effectively, however, who will teacher the children when there aren’t any teachers?

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