Teachers – overpaid or underpaid?

I don’t know about you but I have been deluged recently with Facebook and blog posts in support of the Wisconsin teachers unions.  “Teachers are underpaid and under-appreciated!” they say.   Some broaden it to “All public servants are underpaid!”   Inevitably, of course someone comments that teachers are overpaid, citing some stat that the average Wisconsin teacher makes over $100K.    Others simply gripe that most workers are underpaid and “why do teachers deserve special attention?”  Or lately there has been a post circulating that is titled “Are you sick of highly paid teachers?” but only ironically, as it goes on to argue that teachers are vastly underpaid.

My response: This issue is more complicated than it appears. Even as a former teacher myself, I can’t simply say that teachers are underpaid. There is far more to this conversation than can be said in such blanket statements. Many teachers are underpaid, but many are also overpaid.

First, let me say that I completely disagree that all “public servants” are underpaid. I worked with enough lazy government employees just waiting for a pension check to argue with that one.   I’d agree that teachers are generally underpaid, but government bureaucracy breeds laziness. Of course, I lean left, so I don’t think the problem is government as an institution but a failure of *leadership* and a failure of *values* (like the value of hard work) in the current working generation (which includes myself).

On the issue of leadership, teachers are not immune. As a former teacher, I can vouch for the fact that the best teachers are the ones most underpaid, but there are plenty of teachers that are also simply sitting and waiting for their pension. The problem is a lack of a good way to judge teacher performance outside of student performance – and the lack of will in the leadership of our schools to create and implement such a system. The best teachers (just like any occupation) don’t do it for the money, they teach out of passion. Unfortunately there are not enough of those teachers to fill all of our classrooms. So the question is, how do we incentivize the others to better performance.  The common argument says that teachers are paid $1 per hour per student. With the average class being 25 or more, I could argue that many teachers don’t deserve $25 per hour because they are doing little more than minimum wage work. Like I said, though, this isn’t all teachers – but we need a good way to separate the good and bad apples.

On the issue of values, I have to say that teachers (along with parents) are in large part to blame for the lack of values, especially hard work, in the current generation. When I was in school, the “curve” had already shifted to the point where an A was above average, a B was average, and a C was below average. There was no way to acknowledge the exceptionally hard working and smart student because there was nothing above an A and with a C becoming below average, a D was just a way of giving an F without failing the kid. Today, that curve has skewed even further – the average grade is somewhere between an A- and a B+. A B is below average and Cs are simply unheard of. The problem here is that we are no longer asking anyone to work hard. The smartest kids in the class can get an A without much effort and have no incentive to do more. The rest of the kids know they can get a B with below average work and there aren’t a great deal of consequences about getting a B.

The education system could always use more money. I am not disputing that, but that money cannot simply be applied as an across the board pay increase. We need better leadership, better training, and frankly, a complete overhaul of the grading system.

Finally, on the question of teachers vs. other workers being underpaid: yes, the vast majority of the American workforce makes less than their counterparts did a generation or two ago. The gap between the top 1% of earners in the country and the bottom 10% is disgusting. The last time we had a gap this large between rich and poor was in th late 1920s – and we all know what happened then, don’t we? (the Great Depression, for those of you that had a waiting-for-pension history teacher in high school). Certainly the debate here should start with those economic inequalities and, frankly, inefficiencies (Rich people don’t spend most of their money so the economy isn’t going to get going with them). BUT, there are two differences between teachers and commercial workers. 1) I don’t control the budget of most businesses. I do, through my vote, control the budget of our education system. and 2) Most businesses do not hold the future in their hands. Teachers do. This is why we all need to care about how much teachers are paid, and what needs to be done to fix the system.

[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union.  For more of Matt’s posts on this blog, please click here]


6 responses to “Teachers – overpaid or underpaid?

  • steph anderson

    well stated, Matt. you do a great job of seeing this issue from all sides, reminding us that it is truly complicated! I am sorry, though, that my ill-thought simple status launched a minefield 🙂

  • Allison

    So then, what exactly do you propose to do about this situation, to fix it?

    It’s one thing to point out obvious flaws in the system, another to suggest a concrete way to go about solving and patching the flaws.

  • Matthew Gaudet


    Thank you for your comment. You are right that I do not propose a solution to the extensive problems that exist in our school system, but what you miss is that I never intended to. This post was written in the heat of the Wisconsin teacher union standoff last March. The debate had become polarized and this post was an attempt to show that neither “side” was completely right nor completely wrong and in the end, we were all wrong to see it in black and white terms. I still maintain that I made a solid argument on that point.

    I think your comment gets to a different issue though, and one that is important for understanding the power that blogging, twitter, facebook and the like offer us in today’s world. I don’t see blogs as the place to espouse perfect solutions to social and other problems. Blog and other social media are arenas for conversation, not blanket solutions. If I had the solution, I wouldn’t put it in a blog post – I would write it in a book and publish it for all the world to learn from my unique wisdom. Instead, I saw a flaw in how the debate was being waged and so, I chose to participate in the conversation through this blog post with the hope of changing the conversation at least among those who read this blog. My goal was to add to the conversation so that someday, we might together develop the right solution, and eventually publish that to the world.

    The world’s biggest problems are not going to be solved with single step solutions. Rather, solutions to these problems are going to be solved through communication and dialogue. Social media offers us an arena in which that conversation can occur regardless of the geographic and other boundaries that impeded our predecessors. That is to say, social media can replace or supplement our other forms of dialogue (e.g. face to face conversations, letters, oral and other presentations, etc.). However, we ought not confuse the conversation that produces great ideas for the ideas themselves. Great ideas have always been preceded by great conversations, and today those conversations are, to a greater degree everyday, being held online. This should not be confused for replacing the repositories of the great social ideas: books, magazines and journals.

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