Teacher's High Salaries ?

The Inveterate Carpers

(This was written in l996, so upgrade the salary figures mentioned to whatever we have at the time you are reading this paper. The figures change but the situation remains largely the same.)

I am getting tired of hearing thoughtless people forever carping about the high salaries school-teachers are receiving these days. They seem unaware of some basic facts, that teachers actually have a college education, with special training in teaching in college, and to keep their job they must get a Master's degree and continuing educational coursework in most states. For this they get paid.

But not exorbitantly, when we examine the figures. If there are some 180 school days in the year, and the teacher is on the jobsite seven hours a day, with a minimum of 2 hours work to be done at home in preparation and correcting papers, this gives about 1620 work hours a year. By comparison, an employed "worker" works 2000 hours a year.

Let's say an experienced worker with needed skills can command $12.00 an hour. His annual salary of $24,000 is in line with a beginning teacher's salary, if the teacher is paid $16.00 a work-hour, or $25,920 annually. This is high for many schools in Vermont (as an example of a rural setting), but it matches the highest starting salaries in the area for teachers. I maintain that if an experienced worker, generally with a high school education, is likely to earn as much as $12.00 an hour, it is not unreasonable for a beginning teacher, with four years of college and more education required to keep the job, to earn four dollars more an hour.

Put the other way around, if a high school graduate had decided to go to college and get a degree in computer science, electrical or civil engineering, he would expect something to the tune of $16.00 an hour on his first job, which at 2000 work-hours a year would give him an income of $32,000, which is about right. So there is a general equivalency in pay between "Experience without college" and "College Education without experience", which does not seem unreasonable.

But it's a different story at the upper ranks. An experienced teacher in Vermont may earn $35,000, up to a high of near $47,000 a year, depending on the school and the area, with an average in the mid- thirties. How do we feel about this, is it fair or overdone?

Let's use the comparative approach again. An average of medical doctors' salaries in this country was recently announced at about $115,000. The M.D. has four years of college, four years in medical school, and two years internship, or a total of 10 years higher education. The teachers with college and required further education, will have 6 years. So it might be reasonable, merely in terms of return on education, to pay the average teacher 60% of what an average doctor earns, but we must discount again by 25% for the 1620 teaching hours, as against the regular 2000 hour work-year. (Doctors often practice four days a week, but cover emergency room or other duties, so we will give them the 2000-hour figure.)

Now back to the numbers! The doctor's average earning of $115,000 discounted at 60% for years of training, and then another 25% of this for the shorter school-year of 1620 hours, gives $51,750. This is about 12% more than the best-paid teachers in Vermont earn, but about right for Principals and Superintendents of Schools. However many doctors earn two or three times this base-figure of $115,000, while no teachers can possibly earn more than the range of figures here given.

In view of these calculations, I think it is reasonable to state that beginning teachers are paid fair salaries in terms of their education and the hours they put in over the course of a year. At the high end of the spectrum, experienced teachers get top-end salaries comparable to the average of the earning of medical doctors, as evaluated in terms of work-weeks and education-years.

This is just about the way it should be, at least if you are going to get reasonably trained and committed teachers into our classrooms. When I began teaching college forty years ago, teachers earned less than any carpenter, plumber or electrician, and it wasn't until around l965 that the earnings of these groups began to match. The saying in those days was: "If you can, do!... If you can't, teach. !", and it no wonder that so many under qualified and poorly motivated teachers entered the profession back then. As salaries rose, better people entered teaching on all levels, and as time goes on, still better people are entering the field, but now at reasonable pay. If you are thinking of some older teachers who never had a fire for the work, or lost it over the years, remember that they entered at the nadir, they are being phased out by time, and could not survive on the current levels of hiring.

There are weak links in the system, to be sure. Perhaps the worst is the function of the municipal School Board, which gets crushed among the rock of rising costs and salaries, the desires of the tax-payers who must fund these costs, and the hard place where decisions about hiring Principals, Superintendents and the teachers themselves have to be made. It is this last area which gets the least convincing attention. Hiring of professionals by a team of elected non-professionals is always a hit-or-miss proposition, as the fast turnover of school administrators shows. Turning backward the story about the prison warden who said he could have a better prison if he had better prisoners, I believe we could have better teachers and better administrators if we had a better School Board.

One way would be to have a set of requirements for election to the School Board. If four members of a twelve person Board were college teachers or professional experts on education with Ph.D. or equivalent, if four were experts with M.B.A. and financial experience, and four were representatives of the "will of the people" paying the school costs with their taxes, this should be a stronger and more effective Board. Only the last four need be residents in the area, some of the others could be invited from outside the community to help in problem-areas where they have experience. (This is the way college Boards of Trustees work, they are largely outsiders chosen for their expertise.)

I do not expect much change in the foreseeable future. There is little hope for real educational reform, although much talk is in the air. There is no hope for a change in the nature of our School Boards, bound as they are by tradition and cramped by insoluble problems. And there aren't going to be any changes in teacher's salaries, first because they are on the books, and what goes on today determines what we get tomorrow. And second, because the salaries are fair and just, in terms of educational requirements and actual teaching-time spent.

Of course there are those who disrespect education per se, the self-made men who are worshippers of their own image, having by themselves made a bundle of big bills or, as it often turn out, big expectations, all of this securely based on no more than an eighth grade education. Cuts in federal aid to Education over the last years shows that many people of this obtuse persuasion can get into high places in government and do a lot of damage there. It is partly by their doing that education in this country has received so little attention and help recently. As we verge into the next century, the notion of the Anti-education Dinosaurs is clearly marked for extinction, but the echoes of their words still ring in our ears. The hard fact is this: No serious Education means no possibility of competition in the tightening global economy, and this in turn means something like Chronic Recession, which may be a terminal disease.

So I urge you to stop griping about the teachers and their salaries, and start thinking about what you can do to get new standards for both the teachers and the actual course they teach. The School Board, which by its own rules has all meeting open to the public, is your avenue for change. Suggests and complaints not repeatedly registered by both letter and personal appearance with your School Board are inscribed (as a poet two thousand years ago put it...) "on the whistling wind and flowing water".

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College