If We Want Better Education, We Could Start With Paying Teachers Fairly

It's one of the most important jobs there is.

In a few weeks, school will be back in session. And most of the teachers running classrooms across the United States will be grossly underpaid for their work.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that, in 2015, the wages of teachers at public schools were 17 percent lower than those of workers the study judged to be comparable. In 1994, that percentage difference was 1.8, indicating a massive growth in the pay gap for public school teachers. While some of the gap closes when benefits are accounted for (wages plus benefits compensation was only 11.1 percent lower than that of comparable workers), the report was decisive: teachers are not being paid the way they should be.

Why is this important?

As the EPI noted, a good teacher is the biggest influence on education outcomes for schools everywhere. 

"It is therefore crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers," the report says. "This is particularly difficult at a time when the supply of teachers is constrained by high turnover rates, annual retirements of longtime teachers, and a decline in students opting for a teaching career."

Compounding that problem is the continued and increasing emphasis on standardized testing, which makes students more reliant on good teachers in order to get to college and find work. 

Sean McComb, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, noted to A Plus that in a time when college graduates are drowning in debt, choosing a job with a considerably lower salary just isn't an option for some people.

"We should want the most talented, dynamic, dedicated professionals possible to entrust with our country's future," McComb told A Plus. "With this kind of salary deficit, the profession doesn't get even ground to compete on its own merits."

Sean McComb posing with President Obama after receiving his National Teacher of the Year Award in 2014.
Sean McComb posing with President Obama after receiving his National Teacher of the Year Award in 2014.

In its report, the EPI also noted the importance of unions.  

"In 2015, teachers not represented by a union had a ‑25.5 percent wage gap — and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers," it wrote.

The importance of unions isn't lost on McComb, either. He emphasized that in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland, where unions are strong and teachers are paid well, student achievement is higher.

As The Atlantic reported in February, simply raising teacher salaries might not improve retention, participation or even education. But raising those salaries to draw in the best talent, and then protecting those teachers through unions and creating the best possible environment for teachers: That's a recipe for success. 

"It's the combination that not only helps to attract talent to the profession, but keep it in classrooms as well," McComb said. 

Hopefully, with reports like the EPI's coming to light, states will begin re-evaluating how they fund their public schools. Chances are they'd have the public's support

(H/T: Gawker)

Cover photo courtesy of Sean McComb.