An Apple For Teachers

My boss writes a monthly political opinion column for a magazine called Northwest Business Monthly. He ran for state senate in 2004, as a Republican, though he now says that the Republican Party is frustrating to him. He calls himself a “moderate conservative.”

I don’t write a monthly column for anyone, I mostly just write this blog and discuss politics with my wife and anyone else who’ll listen. I’ve never run for public office (unless you count my unsuccessful bid for sixth grade class vice president — I think it was my philosophical unwillingness to promise Dr. Pepper in the school drinking fountains that ultimately spelled my demise). I vote Democrat, though I’d have to admit that the dems and most American politics are frustrating to me right now. I call myself a “big fat liberal”, but in truth I’m probably closer to center than I typically am willing to admit.

He and I get along very well. And while we have somewhat different politics, we have a mutual respect for each other. We welcome feedback from each other. We welcome debate. That is why today I must take issue with the two significant assertions he makes in his column in the June issue. One assertion is fairly miniscule. The other is very substantial.

The small issue: John Stossel should win some sort of “Journalist of the Year” award.

The Biggie: “Teachers are underpaid” is a myth.

I’m very upset that so many people continue to buy this notion. Teachers ARE underpaid. I’m going to show you why.

But first let’s deal with Stossel.

John Stossel of ABC’s “20/20” is a sensationalist entertainer who had frequently misled his audience (and been caught doing so). He’s not a journalist in my book. To wit: in February of 2000, he reported that commercially grown produce has no more pesticide than organic produce. Later that year, the Washington Post (a reputable publication, by most accounts) reported that the research upon which Stossel’s report was based had never been conducted. Read about it by clicking here. You can read more about Stossel by clicking here. Be sure to check the sources. They’re equally reputable. He deserves no such award.

Now let’s move on to the Big One. Stossel has written a few books, most recently one titled “Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity”. I don’t intend to read this book (and my boss hasn’t yet either, as he claims in his column). Stossel asserts the common claim that “teachers are underpaid” is a myth. 

When I got incensed about reading this in my boss’ column, I called a friend in California who’s a teacher. What follows is a fairly simple explanation for the fact that teachers are underpaid. It’s not my idea, and I won’t take credit for it, but it is important to understand nonetheless.

Here’s the scenario: let’s say you were to offer a teacher a babysitting/child care wage. For example, I pay my babysitter $4 per hour per child. If I had one kid, I’d pay her $4 per hour, two kids? $8 per hour and so on. Now on an hourly basis, this amounts to $1.15 less than the federal minimum wage. Since I live in Washington, she’s making over $3 less than the minimum wage. $4 per hour is a fair, market-driven wage for child care, and if I could afford to pay her more I would, and when I can afford to, I will.

We’ll offer our teacher $0 for vacation. Though most teachers have the summer “off”, they don’t collect paychecks during the summer. And most responsible teachers use the summer for lesson planning and cirriculum organization so their school year can beconsiderably more orderly.

We’ll offer $0 for planning, grading papers, email, calling parents, attending to extracurricular activities. That’s about 5 extra hours per day during the school year. We’ll call it 900 hours of unpaid work per year (5 hours per day TIMES 180 instructional days) –and that’s a fairly conservative. This amounts to a loss of around $3,600 if we are paying babysitting wage, far more (approximately $5,400) if you consider it overtime.

We offer $0 for the extra supplies teachers must buy every year because the school district won’t–on average, $1,000 per teacher–and far more if the teacher has their own computer.

Offer $0 for attending conferences, for taking classes and continuing to educate oneself as a professional. Not to mention the fact that continuing education is required by law. This amounts to roughly $1,000 per year.

Now let’s do the math, and see if this offer sounds good. For the purposes of the folowing examples, we’ll assume the following are true: an average class has approximately 30 students, the average teacher teaches 6 classes per day and that there are 180 instructional days in each school year. These numbers could all shift slightly depending on the district.

$4 x 30 students per class x 6 classes per day x 180 instructional days = $129,600.

At the Federal minimum wage, it’s $166,860.

To me that sounds more like the salary of the lobbyist in the state capitol who is lurking on behalf of the textbook publishers and standardized test publishers, bribing state legislators with campaign funds to adopt their educationally bankrupt, extraordinarily expensive products.

But we all know that teaches don’t make that much money. According to the State of Washington, a first-year teacher in this state who holds a bachelor’s degree has a base salary of $31,386, starting in the fall of 2006. Now let’s figure how much the taxpayers are paying per child, per hour, if the teacher is a first year teacher in the state of Washington. Let’s do the math again.

Annual base salary of $31,386 MINUS $2000 out-of-pocket per year for supplies and continuing education DIVIDED BY 180 Instructional days DIVIDED BY 6 classes per day DIVIDED BY 30 students per class … EQUALS:

90.7 cents an hour. And that doesn’t even include the opportunity cost of all the unpaid work that teachers do outside their work day.

Every Washington teacher and supporter of Washington teachers should be wearing a T-shirt that says in giant letters:


There’s probably a sweatshop somewhere in Bangladesh or Indonesia that pays better.

The idea that teachers are underpaid only works if you assume ALL of the following:

1. Teaching is easier than babysitting; hence the idea that having more than one kid at once should mean the taxpayers are entitled to some kind of “discount” per child.

2. Teaching is FAR easier than day care–because it is FAR less expensive. And conservatives want to privatize public education; in that situation, the amount of money reaching the classroom and the teachers would drop precipitously in order to line the pockets of the corporate bosses running the privatized schools. Superintendents and throngs of district administrators with mysterious unknown responsibilities are already draining the system of valuable dollars. In a corporate environment these would be the last to go if the budget had to be balanced.

3. Teaching should require no training at all, since it’s the only job where the employees have to pay to train themselves on the job.

If teaching were lucrative, politicians would do it.

If teaching were easy, then half of all first year teachers wouldn’t leave the profession within 5 years. You can read about it in the Washington Post.  Want to know why the education system is “failing”? That statistic tells the whole story.

Next time you meet a teacher, you should thank them for working for what amount to slave wages. Give them a big hug and offer to buy them lunch.

Next time someone tells you that teachers or overpaid, ask them if they’d be willing to work for 90.7 cents an hour.

And tell them to check their sources.

2 thoughts on “An Apple For Teachers

  1. Brian Sibley says:

    Kendrick — Regardinig your first comment, i was working out what the teacher makes (90.7 cents per hour), not what the public pays. The entire premise of my (lengthy) post was that teachers are horribly underpaid. Fiscal waste and irresponsibility within the education system in this country is another issue entirely. And probably one that begs addressing. Thanks for the idea. How about corporate waste and irresponsibility? Any comments there?

    Also, you’ve turned my numbers around somewhat. You’ve calculated differently to make your point than I have. This goes to show two things: 1) that any statistic can be interpreted a number of different ways to prove a point, and 2) that $14.84 per hour seems like a lot of money … until you look at the $29,386 as an annual salary. Yes, there are only 180 instructional days in a year, but that salary has to last 12 months. That’s less than $2500 per month on average (before taxes), hardly enough to support a family (certainly in our community).

    As for privatization, and in the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that I attended a private high school. My high school education cost my parents more per year than my college (which was public). That’s the way it should be. If you want to choose to send your kids to private school, because you have the means and the desire to do so, then more power to you. But as citizens, we have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good. Public education should not be privatized.

    Putting schools in competition with each other doesn’t work because in reality, every situation is different. Public schools in wealthy areas traditionally perform better than those in poor neighborhoods. The problem there is more likely to be sociological than economic. Taking a economic darwinist approach to education (i.e. may the best school win!) can only hurt the weaker schools. Those kids all deserve a chance, even if they happen to live in a poor neighborhood. We need to devote MORE resources to the underperforming schools, not less. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. Go pick up a book by Jonathan Kozol called “Savage Inequalities”. It will open your eyes a bit to what’s going on in America’s Schools. It’s hard to fathom from here in (largely white) Bellingham, Washington, but there are millions of kids out there in places like Camden, New Jersey and East Saint Louis who don’t have half of the opportunities my kids will have, even if my kids went to the weakest school in Bellingham.

    As for your tenure comment … brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll ignore it for now …

  2. Change Agent,

    I found your blog just a few days ago (thanks for directing me to it). After I read this article, I just had to post a response.

    I find that your disgust at the calculated cost of “90.7 CENTS AN HOUR” is misguided. Your calculations are actually saying that the public pays 90.7 cents per student per hour. That may be what the teacher makes, but that is definitely not what the public pays.

    What you’re really complaining about how little of the public money makes it to the teacher. At 90.7 cents per hour, that would appear to be a real bargain for taxpayers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really cost that little to educate a student for an hour. I haven’t read John Stossel’s book, but I did find his weekly column. In the archives, you can find a number of his columns regarding public education and I imagine that the book contains many of the same points. In the January 18 column, he writes:

    If you divide the U.S. Department of Education’s figure for total spending on K-12 education by the department’s count of K-12 students, it works out to about $10,000 per student.

    If those numbers are accurate, that means that we are spending about $9.26 per hour per student on education ($10,000 / 180 days / 6 hours per day). That means that about 90% of the money spent educating children is spent on something other than paying the teacher. I don’t know what I think about that figure by itself, but that 90% just seems really wasteful to me. If teachers feel that they’re underpaid, they should be going after whoever is spending the rest of that money (union waste, administrators, etc).

    Furthermore, if we assume that your other assumptions are correct, you are saying that a first year teacher in Washington State is making $27.21 per classroom hour!!! That’s 90.7 cents per hour per student * 30 students per hour. Frankly that would be an astounding hourly pay rate for someone right out of school. EVERYONE would want to be a teacher! That isn’t really what they make per hour because the extra hours are not a part of the calculation.

    Let’s see if I can’t come up with a more reasonable hourly pay rate using your assumptions:

    Annual Starting Salary: $31,386 – $2,000 = $29,386 (fair assumption)
    Workdays: 180
    Hours Per Day: 6 hours of classes + 5 extra (a pretty high assumption, but I’ll stay with it just for you…I’ve never known a teacher having to put in 5 extra hours per day)

    Daily Pay Rate: $29,386 / 180 days = $163.26 per day
    Hourly Pay Rate (11 hour days!): $163.26 / 11 hours = $14.84 per hour.

    I’d be really curious to know how many college grads would be happy with $14.84 per hour starting out. Very few of my friends made that much right out of school. They’d probably complain about the 11 hour days, but they’d be making more than their friends. Frankly, I don’t think that’s an unfair wage to start out with.

    Let’s look at the average salary. According to The American Federation of Teachers, the average teacher salary was $46,597. Using my calculations above, the average hourly pay rate for teachers is $22.52. I guess I have a hard time saying that $44,597 (I pulled the $2000) for 9 months of work is an example of being underpaid. I’d actually say that seems fair. I have a hard time comparing $44,597 to a sweatshop in Indonesia! That’s actually quite ridiculous.

    Having researched homeschooling, private schools, and other alternatives to public school, it’s pretty clear that public education is the least of them all. I’d say that I could give my kids a phenomenal education with $10,000 per year. Especially when compared to public schools. I could easily find 6 like-minded parents and together pay a teacher $60,000 for 9 months of unsurpassable education. It would be a classroom of 6 kids. A decent teacher could take a group of 6 really far in 9 months.

    You also complain about the desired privatization of public schools. Putting schools in competition with each other would have a huge positive impact on the quality of education. Why is that? Because if a school/teacher can’t do the job well enough, they get replaced with one who can. The best teachers would make the most money because they would be in demand. I realize that this means that someone ends up going to the bottom schools and doesn’t get as good of an education…but isn’t that overall better than having EVERYONE drug down by public schools that provide crummy overall educations?

    Now imagine how much better the public school systems would be if teachers couldn’t be tenured! Every teacher would have to actually work hard every school year instead of just the first few (3?). Perhaps the students would benefit from teachers who HAD to perform…

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