Are teachers underpaid?

Are teachers underpaid? No. That’s not to say there aren’t individual teachers that should be paid more, just as there are assuredly individual teachers that should be paid less (or fired). But the “national conversation” that is being continually pushed (from the left mostly, e.g. see recent Time Magazine spread on “underpaid” teachers) is not so much about worthy star teachers being passed over for raises but rather how the collective known as “teachers” is “underpaid”; identity politics now driven by profession. With credulous acceptance the public will always answer in the affirmative if asked should teachers be paid more because what we have been conditioned to hear instead is, “do these benighted souls deserve more for their selfless work?” With “more” being the unmoored comparative there is no upper bound for “worth.” Their salaries could double every year and every year if asked, “should they earn more” we would nod our heads in bobble-head synchrony.

Please do not misunderstand dear reader, teachers do indeed provide an important service to their fellow man – just as does every other working person. How do we know this? Well, if you earn a salary or income, then that demonstrates how much value you produced. Work in and of itself is not valuable – just ask the guy making mud pies all day – no one is going to pay him a dime (sorry Marx, labor theory of value was laid to rest long ago). The “hardness” of your work is irrelevant – only the result counts. Work is only valuable when subjectively judged to have value by fellow human beings, that is, an offer to trade parts of your work for theirs is made. Value is subjective and not absolute. When people say “teachers should earn more” I always wonder, “ok, what is the mathematical formula that is used to solve for pay of a teacher?” You may believe that teachers serve a more valued role in society than say the movie star or the lawyer, but the distribution of talent in society says otherwise. Labor, like any other economic good, is subject to the laws of supply and demand. The issue with teacher’s pay is summed up nicely in the following quote from the Time article,

“Hutchison’s siblings—an attorney, engineer and physical therapist—all earned graduate degrees, but now she makes half of what they do.” 

Hutchinson (the teacher) makes half of what her siblings make because her siblings all chose careers that are in much greater demand than that of the public school teacher. The path to becoming an attorney or engineer is long and arduous and very few have the skillset to complete it. The supply is thus low and it so follows that demand (and thus pay) will be high. On the flip side is the path of teacher; most people possess the skillsets needed to teach (after getting a 2 year teaching degree). It is an “easy” career (relative to other more highly paid careers), and so that low barrier to entry means many will take up that profession – supply is thus high and so demand (pay) will (all things equal) be lower when compared to professions with limited supply.

Because we are mainly focused on public school teachers this introduces either unions or the regimentation of a public sector workforce structure into the wage equation. In these systems wages are based primarily on seniority rules and have little to do with how effectively one performs their job. Being government run, raises will typically trail inflationary trends (inflation being 100% caused by the government mind you!) due to slow to act legislatures.

A more market-based approach (where teachers could be rewarded directly without concern for the “seniority” of others) would realize the top teachers earning top salaries, thus incentivizing those in other high paid professions to switch careers (if their preference had been for teaching). The end result of this process would be highly paid teachers dominating the profession and driving out the weak or ineffective teachers. If two teachers making $125k each can “out-teach” the same number of students as five teachers making $60k each, then it would be a win for the students, the teachers, and the taxpayer. If we want teachers to make more then let’s unshackle the profession’s public sector regimentation and union demands that maintain a status quo of oversupply driven by the politics of envy.