Archive for January, 2012

Are teachers *really* overpaid?

Posted: January 17, 2012 in post
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I guess it depends on whom you ask; to whom you compare; and whether or not you take an historic perspective comparing apples to apples as it were when making that comparison. If you are a right-wing think-tank, like the American Enterprise Institute, then as a matter of policy teachers “must” be overpaid. Surely they must because most public school teachers are represented by unions, and if you are a “good” Republican, union is an evil word and symbol of all that is wrong with America.

It is also a matter of policy for the far-right to mourn the woeful inadequacy of our public schools, so again, teachers must be overpaid because obviously, the teachers are the only problem in the system. Never-mind that it is the far-right who has taken money away from the schools. Never-mind that charter schools and private schools aren’t really any better (for the most part). Never-mind that the argument that charters and private schools “do more with less” is a blatant lie. Surely, public school teachers earn too much money.

Let’s look first at the comparisons made by the American Enterprise Institute. They argue that public school teachers are likely to earn substantially less if they leave “the field,” but they go on to include the (notably lower wages) of private school teachers in their comparison. If a teacher leaves the field, they have left the field, OK, so leave out the wages of the private school and charter school teachers. Those wages are irrelevant if the teacher has “left the field of education.”

Now, let’s look to my own (limited of course) experience. When I have not been employed as a teacher, I have always made more money. Always. As a transit bus driver. As a dryer operator. Especially as a $50K per year route salesman…. Not one of those jobs required more than a high school diploma. Yet “teachers are overpaid.”

The median wage (I hate averages because they are generally useless for comparisons of this type) for corporate trainers nationwide (something many teachers who leave the field do) are $54,160 annually according to, the “official” government data site for occupations. The median wage for a secondary school teacher is $53,230, again according to Onet, slightly lower. Wholesale and Retail buyers do earn slightly less than do teachers according to Onet, but certainly not 35-50 percent less…maybe 6% less. A first-line supervisor at a big-box retailer might make substantially less than the median teacher’s salary, but if we are talking about people who leave the field within two to three years, they are not earning anywhere near that “median” salary. In fact, without an MA, a teacher who leaves to become a first-line supervisor will probably experience a pay increase….

Ah, but the authors of the report from the American Enterprise Institute will quickly jump up to defend themselves here. They will state that these other employees don’t receive all the lucrative fringe benefits that teachers receive. Really? When was the last time any teacher you knew received an annual performance bonus? If they did receive an annual performance bonus (under merit pay) it certainly wasn’t 10% or more of their salary, which is customary in private enterprise. As for insurance, I can assure you that the benefits I have had in education have in only two cases been as good as or better than the insurance benefits I received in industry. But this is, of course, only my experience. I am not an overpaid researcher for a right-wing think tank who has never set foot in a classroom. Surely, if I were, I would know that teachers are “overpaid” and receive extraordinary benefits that no one in private industry receives.

There are further questions to ask here, for example, how much has the median wage for the other occupations here listed increased over the past forty years? How much have the wages of teachers increased over the past forty years?

The “median wage” in 1972 for a teacher with an M.A. or five years experience was about $8200 annually. Assuming that a staff attorney with five years experience earned about $20,000 annually (my father was such an attorney employed at a major firm with this level of experience at that time) a teacher earned about 41% of the attorney’s salary. Take a look at the 2011 ACC “In-House Attorney” survey and you will find that a corporate attorney today with similar experience would earn $161,171. Again, this is believable, as my father retired from this field in 2001. If we compare the median teacher’s salary today to that attorney’s salary, the teacher, at $53,230 now earns 33% of what the corporate attorney earns, down 8% from the 1972 comparison. Yes, I am comparing apples and peanuts here, but what should be clear is that attorneys have seen an increase in pay over the last 40 years while teachers have not. Using the CPI “inflation calculator” I am able to determine that $20,000 1972 dollars has the same buying power in 2011 as $108, 244…meaning that attorneys have effectively seen a 33% wage increase over what they would have earned in 1972. Meanwhile, the teacher is probably sitting stagnant with no net increase as $8200 in 1972 is equivalent to $44380 in 2011. This is approximately the amount that a teacher with an MA and five years experience would earn today. Yet, it is clear, that teachers are “overpaid.”

Again, it all depends on whom you ask and what comparisons are made. Compare public school teachers to private school teachers, as the American Enterprise Survey did, and of course, you will find what you want to find: teachers are “overpaid.” But compare to other fields outside of education where teachers often work? They are paid on par with those fields. Compare with another professional field like law? Lawyers earn substantially more than they did forty years ago. Teacher’s salaries have not increased. Were teachers overpaid in 1972? If not, then they are not overpaid today. You can make the statistics say whatever you want…. The real questions is, do we value education? If we do, we should look to increase wages, not decrease them.


On (Not) Getting By In America

Posted: January 16, 2012 in post

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in AmericaNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is now over a decade old yet still speaks to the ever-widening gap between those who have and those who do not in America. Ehrenreich writes in a readable albeit heady style. While many low-wage workers today have attended and even graduated from college, her writing would be inaccessible to the vast majority of those about whom she writes.

There are a couple of assertions with which I take issue in the book. The first has to do with Ted, The Maids, Intl franchisee who is fairly demonized in the book by Ehrenreich. Having once been a franchisee with another service-based business, I am somewhat sympathetic to Ted who may not actually be as awful as he comes off in the book. Ehrenreich states that while she has never been to Ted’s house, some of the other “maids” describe his house as being, “very nice.” Some of my own employees described my house as being “very nice,” which I am sure it was or is by the standards of someone not quite able to squeak by in America, but I own a home which would be considered a “starter home” (at best) by any solidly middle-class American family. That’s not the only problem I have with the characterization of what is said about Ted and the business.

Granted, an expose of franchises would be required to delve entirely into the issue; however, I feel that Ehrenreich is somewhat disingenuous here as she makes an off-handed remark regarding Ted’s charge-rate versus what the maids are paid hourly: it would seem that when the maids receive “only” 28% of the charge-rate. This is the very kind of simplistic view often taken by those who have no insider experience into how a franchise works. The charge rate is what Ted can expect customers to reasonably pay for the service and accounts for his overhead which includes: the office space; the vehicles; the uniforms; supplies that he is probably required to purchase through either the franchisor or an “approved” vendor (at no-doubt exorbitant rather than discounted rates); insurance, which is notably high for any service business; the percentage cut on “sales” that he owes to the franchisor; advertising expenses, and finally, (hopefully!) a profit for the business from which Ted may pay himself and grow his business. This is my chief complaint, but it is minor because the book isn’t really about Ted or his problems. It’s about the inability of a good 20% (or more) of Americans to “get by” on the wages offered by many of America’s employers.

Ultimately, through my own experiences, what Ehrenreich writes resonates with me and angers me to the point that a part of me wants to ignite a revolution, and another part of me just wants to steer clear of low-wage America. This is not a book for the squeamish, but it is a book that I would encourage all of the “comfortably entrenched” middle wage office drones of America to read.

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I haven’t written in a while. OK, a long while, but there have been several stories this week that compel me to put hands to keyboard and pontificate.

First, I give you the 4 third-grade teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Gwinnett County Georgia, maligned for using slavery analogies to teach math. Probably not the best idea the teachers have had, but as usual, the media distorted the event (notably, or maybe not so notably, FOX News).

First, the background. A January 8, 2012 report by CBS news states “…9 third-grade math teachers have caused an uproar by giving their students assignments using examples involving slavery and the beating of Fredrick Douglass as analogies for solving math problems, according to multiple reports” ( Accessed 1-14-2012). The CBS news article cites district spokesperson Sloan Roach as saying there was no reason to believe there was any [malicious] intent.

Apparently, the teachers were attempting to create cross-curricular assignments to reinforce learning from a social studies unit about Frederick Douglass and slavery. As one of the parents noted in the above-linked FOX News video, there were probably better, more positive ways to reinforce the children’s learning about slavery and Frederick Douglass . There will be no argument from this quarter that the particular questions that caused an uproar were not particularly well thought out. That said, teachers are people and people make mistakes. FOX News in a segment of the show “Cashin’ In, blew the incident out of proportion and took it out of context as a “rallying cry” for school vouchers! Really?

While I agree that the particular word problems were a poor choice, I commend the teachers for their attempt to reinforce learning across the curriculum. This is good practice! Instead, FOX showed the most incendiary questions and the videos of the protestors out of context to demonstrate the sad state of American education and the “need” for school vouchers.

School vouchers are beyond the scope of this post, but I must refute one of the arguments (oft-heard from proponents of vouchers) that “private schools do more with less.” This is a patently false and misleading statement. Being familiar with private schools having both attended a religious school during my high school years and later having taught at a Catholic school, I can make a few assertions here.

1. Many of the public do not realize that the vast majority of private school teachers earn less (substantially so) than their public school counterparts. This is one way to stretch a dollar!

2. The vast majority of individuals with whom I have spoken about the issue (and as the lead caller for a referendum vote in my community, I have spoken with more than a handful) are unaware that public schools substantially subsidize the private schools. A few examples: busing, textbook purchases, provision of special services.

Thus, the statement that private schools do more with less is a bold statement

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...

Image via Wikipedia

, but that is a topic for a separate post!

Education Week ran a “response to critics” of the American Enterprise Institute study released at the beginning of November 2011 stating that teachers are overpaid. Andrew Biggs, one of the study’s authors stated in a November 1, 2011 article appearing in National Review Online, “…we estimate that public-school teachers receive total compensation roughly 50 percent higher than they would likely receive in the private sector” (See link, National Review Online. Accessed 1-14-2012). Again, having been employed as a teacher as well as having held a number of jobs that required no formal education, I find this study tough to swallow. Nearly every job I have ever held paid more than did teaching and most of those jobs required no formal education past high school. Most of the jobs also had substantially better benefits than I received as a teacher, and one of those jobs was not a union position. Again, this topic is beyond the scope of this post, but the defense of this dubious study irks me.

To conclude, let’s take a look at a couple of more positive happenings in the education arena: A new book by Peter H. Johnston is available from Stenhouse Publishers: Opening Minds: Using Language to Transform Lives. The book explores the way in which the words we use construct the very “worlds” of our classrooms. One example from the book analyzes these two statements: “Introducing a spelling test by saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know’ [conveys a very different message] from saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know already‘” (page 2). The thesis is that the words we choose have the power to transform the lives of our students, for better or for worse. I’ll be adding this book to my “must read” list.

Finally, let me introduce you to the website Disability Is Natural. I stumbled across the website this week after a Twitter pal shared the profound article to which I have above linked, “Disability Issue or Human Being Issue?” The two page commentary provokes the reader to look afresh at the way in which he or she views disability. Kathie Snow, the website owner poses the following questions to the reader: “How many times do we make assumptions about children or adults with disabilities that are based primarily on the person’s diagnosis? How many decisions—life-altering decisions for the person with the disability—have been made based on these assumptions? How do we know the issue is a consequence of the person’s disability?” (Snow, Kathie. See Link, Disability is Natural). I encourage you to read the article and evaluate how you see people with disabilities. Can you look beyond the disability or diagnosis?