Hate the Deception, Not the Teacher

This morning the New York Times ran one of those stories that just drives me nuts. You know, one of those articles that’s packed full of anecdote; sad, beleaguered victims of societal cruelty; and a gaping vacuum where balancing facts should be found.

I’m referring to “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?” which suggests that broad, angry swaths of Americans hate teachers. Of course, it offers almost no actual evidence of that save an angry email one teacher received. Indeed, the article cites polling data that greatly belies the point.

Worse than this is that the article contains incredibly deceptive – but all too standard – reporting on teachers’ compensation, ignoring that teachers’ salaries are based on much shorter working hours than are those of most other professionals. And this is to say nothing of public-school teachers’ typically very nice benefits packages – the main concern when it comes to crumbling state budgets. So we read with a tear in our eyes of the situation of Erin Parker, a second-year teacher in Madison, WI earning $36,000 a year plus benefits. Her situation is so desperate, we’re told, that she is contemplating moving back to Colorado so she can live, presumably rent-free, with her parents. 

So what does Ms. Parker make per hour, the best assessment of her pay? (We’ll leave aside the very big, but harder to calculate, matter of benefits.) According to the Madison CBA, Ms. Parker is required to work 182 days (the requirement after the first year of teaching). She also is required to be at school from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm – slightly longer than most teachers typically work, including time spent working outside of contracted hours. A recent “time diary” analysis pegged total working hours per school-week at slightly less than 40.

So, multiply 8 by 182 and you get 1,456 hours per year. Divide $36,000 by that and Ms. Parker’s hourly wage is $24.73.

What would that look like for a standard, 2,000 hours worked per year (40 hours per week for 50 weeks)? $49,460. That’s certainly not riches, but it comes very close to Wisconsin’s 2008 median household income of $52,103. That’s not too bad for a single person, which is probably something many taxpayers intuit when they rightly note how much time teachers have off.

Of course, we are also told that Ms. Parker has $26,000 in student loans. We’re not told how she got them, but the amount exceeds the 2010 average debt of $23,186, and we don’t know what school(s) she attended, how she spent her time, etc. At least as important as knowing the “why” of her debt, the article also ignores that paying it back is quite possible given her salary and hours. I won’t go into the details of that here, but I lay it out in this 2008 Policy Analysis.

Now, is any of this to say some teachers aren’t paid too little? Absolutely not, but you need a market to determine who should get paid what because value ultimately depends on what people are voluntarily willing to pay for your services. Unfortunately, in large part at the behest of the unions – and it is the unions, not the teachers, who are most often held in contempt – teachers generally all get paid on the same schedule. So if Ms. Parker is a great teacher – and I have no reason to believe she isn’t – she might very well deserve to get paid more. But she shouldn’t blame the public for her pay – she should blame her union.