Are Teachers Paid Too Much? How 4 Studies Answered 1 Big Question

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A new study says public school teachers earn way too much. Another found that teachers earn way too little for their skills. Can both be true?

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American public school teachers are paid far more than their smarts are worth.

That's the provocative conclusion of a new study from two high-profile conservative think tanks. Researchers from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute found that public school teachers take home total compensation that's 52% higher than "fair market levels" for professionals with similar cognitive abilities.

Unsurprisingly, their findings have riled the education world. "No, we do not agree that teachers are overpaid," public school reform advocate Michelle Rhee told Politico. "Under the status quo in most school districts, good classroom teachers are not only undervalued in pay, but as professionals generally."

Of course, this isn't the final word on teacher pay. It's just the latest word. Big sweeping statements about teachers being overpaid or underpaid are perennial in the think tank world. Here are four of the biggest.

Manhattan Institute: Overpaid! Teachers make a killing by the hour.

The Study: Evaluating teacher pay against other professions is notoriously difficult thanks to that hulking gap in the work year known as "summer vacation." So in 2007, The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, tried to get around the problem by looking at hourly wages. The researchers dove into data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for metro regions around the United States and for 85 separate occupations.

The Conclusions: Public school teachers did pretty well by the hour. In 2005, they worked an average of 36.5 hours per week at an average wage of $34.06 an hour. That was better than 61% of the other occupations the researchers examined, including architects, psychologists, chemists, mechanical engineers, economists, and journalists (!). There were big variations by metro area, but teachers still generally beat out their peers. Raleigh, North Carolina, was the only metro area where public school teachers made less than the average white collar worker. In Louisville, Kentucky, they made 79% more.

The Big Criticisms: In what world do teachers actually only work 36 hours a week? The researchers acknowledge that teachers report taking work home at particularly high rates. But they try to get around it by noting that other professions have the same problem. That doesn't fix the issue. All it means is the BLS data is unreliable when it comes to measuring how much people actually work for their pay. The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has also savaged this study for failing to note discrepancies in way the BLS measure teachers' work weeks vs. other professionals. (Still we won't disagree with one aspect of these findings: Journalists most certainly are underpaid.)

Economic Policy Institute: Underpaid! Teachers make much less than professionals with similar skills and education.

The Study: The left-leaning EPI has a running study that periodically tracks what it calls the "teaching penalty." Its most recent update reflects data from 2010, and measures teacher pay based on age, experience, and geography. It also looks at changes over time and reviews some of the current literature. In other words, it's a bit of a beast. But, for our purposes, there are two key stats--pay versus other college graduates and pay versus "comparable" occupations. How do they pick "comparable" fields? Using skill level data compiled by the BLS, which rates jobs based on factors such as complexity and the knowledge base required to perform it. When they last ran the analysis in 2008, the researchers settled on 16 different other professions, including accountants, reporters, registered nurses, computer programmers, and clergy.

The Conclusions: Overall, the EPI finds that teachers make about 12% less than other similarly educated workers. The picture only changes a little when you factor in benefits. Extrapolating from trends they found in 2006 data, the researchers estimate that total compensation for public school teachers lags by 9%. Compared to professions requiring similar skill levels, the wage gap was 14.3%.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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