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Will Raising Teachers' Salaries Improve Teaching?

February 15, 2003

Will raising teachers' salaries improve teaching?

"In recent years, a considerable portion of the controversy about public education has centered on teachers. There has been anger and unhappiness on both sides. We read in the newspapers that not only do teachers feel they are underpaid, the best ones are voting with their feet and leaving the profession."

Most of us recognize the above claim. We have heard it in recent years many times. In fact, I came across it in a book written in 1988. I suspect it was first spoken twenty-five years before then. And maybe even twenty-five years before then; and maybe even….

What has made me think of this issue is a recent Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that stated the state must "equalize" teachers' pay from district to district. A teacher in rural Tennessee has to be paid the same as an equally qualified teacher in an urban school, regardless of the obvious effects of cost of living issues.

Behind this ruling is the assumption that more pay creates better results.

I know teachers' compensation is a "third rail" issue but I believe there is another paradigm to consider other than "more money produces better teachers". (Interestingly, in "The Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools" from 1970-2001, "Low teacher pay" has never registered with more than six percent of those polled as "a major problem facing the local public schools.")

In his excellent book on unintended consequences in current public policy thinking, "In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government", Charles Murray makes a strong case that increasing teachers' salaries to levels found in other professions actually lowers the quality of teaching. Let me explain.

First, he challenges the assumption that better teacher pay produces better education results. Look at the below chart: Average teacher compensation (note: average includes both private and public teachers; private school teachers typically make ~30% less than public school teachers) versus the average full time US worker.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, US Dept. of Education

Teachers have clearly held a lead in average compensation over the average US full time employee since the early 1950's. So they have not been treated like "second class citizens" or have been forced to live in squalor. Murray concludes "We have raised teachers' salaries for years without getting better teachers."

Murray goes even farther in his paradigm shift when he examines what would happen if teachers' salaries WERE raised appreciably. Let's say the average compensation in the year 2000 was $60,000 instead of the $45,000 shown above. Now many more people who would not be teachers at $45,000 would now join the teaching ranks. Most of them, therefore, would be in it for the money. But is teaching a money driven profession?

"Teaching children is one of the most intrinsically rewarding occupations that society has to offer. {From my work as a management consultant, I hear many employees and managers complain about the lack [not of pay] but of intrinsic rewards/psyche income from their jobs.} Teaching remains one of the relatively few occupations that can have the same rich rewards (for people who are drawn to it) that it has always possessed."

So raising teacher salaries appreciably creates a large number of new teachers "in it for the money"; in one of the few professions left that has high psyche income. As Murray points out: Do we want teachers who are "in it for the money" or teachers who love kids and teaching?

Another interesting point he pursues is the effect of large teacher raises on current teachers. More teachers are currently in the profession for the psychic income than would be after large raises. Due to human nature, the raises easily convert many of the psyche income teachers into "in it for the money" teachers. So education suffers even more.

Raising teacher salaries is often a Democrat battle cry during campaigns. Of course after the election they do nothing about it. The reality of suffocating tax rates and runaway bureaucracies puts teacher salary increases on the back burner.

Murray's point is that salary is not the issue. "The task in solving the teacher problem is not to engineer solutions (liberal talk for spending more money) but to strip away the impediments to behaviors that would normally occur." Teaching carries high levels of psychic income and by not focusing our public policy on supporting those psychic income issues we have failed our education systems. In future columns I will address the sources of psychic income: safety, community respect, kids wanting to learn, etc.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.