You get what you pay for.
This old saying carries a lot of truth, especially when it comes to education.
While it’s known that college professors receive hefty compensation, grade school and high school teachers who carry the brunt of the education burden — and who have to spend far more hours teaching — get paid far less.
A recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) study found that full college professors make about double what an average schoolteacher takes home.
I would argue that educating children from kindergarten through grade 12 is more critical than college, as these formative years are a crucial prerequisite for those who plan to attend college. Yet across the country we are shortchanging our teachers. America needs more good teachers, but the inescapable fact is that we won’t get them if we don’t make teaching a more financially attractive profession. According to the AFT, K-12 teachers now earn $47,602 — and that’s the average. You can assume about half of teachers make significantly less than that amount.
Actual salaries can range greatly from one location to another. The money spent per student in New York State, for example, is roughly double the amount spent in Utah.
After graduate school, I taught high school students in the New York City public schools. Many of the veteran teachers were absolutely brilliant. But they were clearly overworked and underpaid. For new teachers, starting salaries were not generous, and to reach the top of the pay scale took an astounding 15 years. The incentive was for bright people to avoid becoming a teacher — and if they did teach, to leave early for a better-paying profession.
Society is not setting teaching as a priority. As a rule, teachers don’t earn as much as most other college-trained professionals. Again, the AFT study found that teacher salaries are about half the average salary for all other professions.
What this means is that the best and brightest in America will likely shun teaching. One solution is for the federal government to ensure that teachers across the nation earn a minimum salary large enough to encourage more qualified college graduates to enter the field, and more teachers to remain in it.
Generally, I don’t like government programs. Indeed, the federal government’s Department of Education administers around $67 billion annually. But so little ends up on the table for teachers.
An idea well worth considering is to have Washington help pay teachers in districts where the average salaries are low.
Public education in the United States is largely funded by state and local governments, with the federal government accounting for only about 10 percent of the more than $900 billion spent on education at all levels.
The federal outlay includes not only Department of Education spending but also spending by other agencies on such programs as Head Start and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch Program.
The AFT estimated that to make teacher pay competitive with pay in other professions by the end of the decade, teachers need an additional investment of almost $15 billion a year. That’s not a daunting sum considering the $67 billion administered by the Department of Education or the $2.7 trillion annual federal budget or the more than $400 billion spent, so far, on the Iraq war. And at a time when standardized test scores are falling in many districts, that’s not too large a price to pay to keep America competitive with the rest of the world.
Today China produces, by some estimates, more than 350,000 engineers each year, and India produces more than 110,000.
But our own schools report a shortage of qualified math and science teachers — one that has reached crisis proportions — and by some estimates, about a quarter of high school teachers lack even a minor in the subject they are teaching.
The American experiment has proven that our greatest resource is our people. But Americans are being shortchanged if their children are taught by substandard instructors because the best and brightest potential teachers are not interested in that profession.
We must make a determined effort to encourage, nurture, and better pay our teachers. Our future depends on it.
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