Poor Treatment of U.S. Teachers Goes Beyond Low Salaries

March 21, 2016

By Amy Auletto

Last week, the Green & Write blog examined the difficult work conditions and low salaries of teachers in charter schools. This week, we take a step back and look at how teacher salaries and work conditions in the U.S. as a whole compare to the rest of the world.

U.S. Teacher Salaries Rank 22nd of 27 Countries

U.S. teachers are paid relatively high salaries compared to other teachers around the world. According to a 2014 UNESCO report (see page 255), the daily salary for primary school teachers in the U.S. is just over $100 a day. Only five of 70+ countries have a higher daily salary than the U.S. – Denmark, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg. Meanwhile, many countries struggle to pay their teachers $20, or even $10, a day.

However, when these teacher salaries are compared to the earnings of other similarly educated and skilled employees within the same country, the U.S. is not compensating teachers equitably at all. An OECD report (see page 13) shows that, among 27 countries, the U.S. ranks 22nd in terms of how well teachers are paid relative to other individuals with college degrees. The ratio in the U.S. is just under 0.6, meaning that teachers are earning less than 60% of what their college-educated peers make. These gaps are not nearly as large in most other countries. For example, in Spain, teachers make about 25% more than others with college degrees.

U.S. Teachers Spend More Time on Instruction, Less Time on Professional Development

Teachers in the U.S. are given significantly less time to collaborate with colleagues. Photo Courtesy of Bart Everson.

Teachers in the U.S. are given significantly less time to collaborate with colleagues.
Photo Courtesy of Bart Everson.

U.S. teachers suffer when it comes to work conditions as well. As Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues explain, teachers in the U.S. are given only 3-5 hours a week for professional development activities such as lesson preparation, assessment development, observing other classrooms, and collaborating with colleagues. In most other countries, teachers get 15-25 hours a week for these activities. In top-performing countries, such as South Korea, teachers only spent 35% of their week instructing students. Additional time out of the classroom to observe other teachers and learn from a mentor is also afforded to new teachers in countries such as Australia, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Switzerland. In New Zealand, first-year teachers spend an additional 20% of their time outside of the classroom to receive further support.

U.S. Teaching Profession Not Highly Regarded

Compared to other countries, the teaching profession in the U.S. is not one that garners high levels of respect. While the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index ranked the U.S. 9th of 21 countries in terms of the overall status of teachers, other measures in this report indicate that teachers are not faring all that well. For instance, survey participants in China compared teachers to doctors and in Japan, teachers were compared to government managers. In the U.S., however, the profession was viewed as most similar to a librarian. Fewer than 40% of American participants agreed that students respected teachers while this rate is over 50% in Turkey and 75% in China. Furthermore, the U.S. was one of only a few countries in which participants believed that teachers were paid more than they deserved.

Call for Action

With abysmal rankings on international achievement tests (24th in reading and 36th in math) and lagging college completion rates (19th of 28 countries), the U.S. educational system certainly has room for improvement. Research has repeatedly found that teachers matter (see here and here). Yet here in the U.S., teachers are not treated like they matter.. To echo policy suggestions made by Darling-Hammond and colleagues, it is time for U.S. teachers to start making higher and more equitable salaries. High-performing countries pay teachers at rates comparable to what engineers and other professionals make, yet teachers in the U.S. can only expect to earn 60% of what their peers bring in. In order to attract and keep strong teachers in the profession, compensation needs to be competitive. Additionally, work conditions must be improved. There have been numerous calls to strengthen teacher induction programs and give teachers more time to collaborate. In order for teachers to be effective, they must be given time to strengthen their practice and provide effective instruction. The U.S. simply cannot afford to continue to shortchange its teachers.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu