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May-27-2008 16:53printcomments

Leave No Teacher Behind, If You Want the Best Schools

Few dispute that attracting and retaining good teachers is imperative if we are to improve the quality of education for our children.

Teacher in class
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(SILVERTON, Ore.) - Much criticism swirls around the educational reform act No Child Left Behind, from its underfunded mandates to its heavy emphasis on testing. Less examined is a structural development detrimental to our children's education: how teachers' salaries have been left behind.

The disturbing numbers can be found in a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. The Teacher Penalty shows that teachers in Oregon and across the U.S. earn considerably less than other college graduates.

Their earnings are also well below those of other professionals with similar educational and skill levels, such as accountants, reporters, registered nurses, computer programmers, members of the clergy and personnel officers.

How much less? Per week, Oregon public schoolteachers earn on average about 20 percent less than what other college graduates earn -- worse than the nation's average teacher pay penalty of 15 percent. The penalty, the study found, decreases only slightly when teachers' health and retirement benefits are taken into account.

That means that each week the average teacher in Oregon makes about $250 less than someone else with a college degree. For Oregon teachers with a Master's degree, the pay differential is more severe, about $310 per week less than others with an M.A.

It wasn't always so. Back when John F. Kennedy was elected president, teachers on average made slightly more than those with similar education and work experience. Female teachers earned significantly more -- almost 15 percent more -- than women with similar education. True, the situation was no Camelot, as the higher pay in some ways reflected the limited professional possibilities for women outside the teaching profession at that time. Still, the pay comparison favored teachers.

Over the course of more than four decades, teacher salaries steadily lost ground. The downward trend did not halt even during periods of strong economic growth, such as the late 1990s. As one of the study's authors observed, teacher compensation seems "prosperity-proof."

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the detrimental impact of the teacher pay penalty. According to some estimates, nearly 40 percent of all new teachers in Oregon leave the profession after five years.

And who can blame them, when on top of the inherent difficulty of the profession, the overcrowded classrooms and the questionable demands of No Child Left Behind, teachers must also cope with the fact that they are systematically devalued compared to their peers?

Few dispute that attracting and retaining good teachers is imperative if we are to improve the quality of education for our children. But all too often, the proposed solution is to institute some form of merit-based pay that will, in theory, act as an incentive for better teaching. Yet experiences in other professional fields suggest that merit-based pay schemes are a double-edged sword.

Though they bring about some improvements in average performance, they also give rise to negatives such as goal distortion and corruption. Ultimately, there are many questions not yet asked or answered by merit-based pay proponents.

At some point we may find a workable merit-based system for education, but it is misguided to present merit-based pay as the solution in light of the long-term erosion of teachers' salaries. It's like skipping the nutritious main course and offering only a potentially unhealthy dessert.

If we want to attract and retain good teachers, we must make teachers' salaries competitive. Closing the pay gap won't be cheap, but it will be well worth it if we truly want to leave no child behind and make our schools among the nation's best.

Juan Carlos Ordóñez is the communications director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. You may reach him at

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Henry Ruark May 30, 2008 11:47 am (Pacific time)

To all: Most frightening, perhaps even more so than teacher pay problem, is determined deep opposition to new "GI Bill", costing us only FOUR DAYS of Iraq-war costs to do what is not only decent/ethical/fair for current-vets, but also can provide same boost to economy and schools and our democracy as the original GI Bill did. That act, and NDEA, done later on somewhat similar plan and pattern, did more for the nation and our democracy than anything else clear back to the New Deal.

Henry Ruark May 29, 2008 9:44 am (Pacific time)

Tim et al: Be very glad for your own perhaps uniquely fortunate position. Fewer and fewer teachers, already set up in solid career positions, find themselves in the same situation; see OCPP and other national reports. But it is overall impact on beginners, compared with other professions, doing damage now nearly irreversible if we allow it to continue. Fact is fact for overall realities, even if sometimes offset by local or otherwise differing situations. Personally, I had no choice in early days if I wished to continue to eat. Later, by some fortunate circumstances, was also fortunate to find situations close to, within or impacting on education, able to support family. For the record, turned down national marketing position to return to Oregon --at $5,000 less annually. Disclosure only to make sure you-all know I try to practice, as well as preach !!

Tim McFarland May 28, 2008 6:05 pm (Pacific time)

I'm a teacher, and I think the people I work with do a great job. I have no complaints about my pay. If I wanted to leave, a higher salary wouldn't keep me in the profession. Seeing a kid succeed is what matters.

Henry Ruark May 28, 2008 1:43 pm (Pacific time)

Sesame et al: Your experience parallels mine own --but if education system "beyond repair" so is our democracy. Cracked,fractured,frustrated-bound, politics/hampered, yes - but unbroken and even often inimitable in what it still does --thanks to those dedicated to kids rather than dollars. Complex reasons, motives, machinations and malign purposes --which is why Op Ed upcoming will detail in some depth, including mine own travail when transitioning to something else...after ten years in OrDeptEd, with close contacts in bestowing federal funds. Agree absolutely with your key phrase, entire last statement --which is another strong reason for Op Ed, and for reference to OCPP report we currently carrying, as full frame demanded for understanding realities we must face--or lose what we have left of democracy even now, thanks in large part to ongoing, if fractured/bent/even partially disabled, educational system AND process beyond grades.

Sesame Street May 28, 2008 12:28 pm (Pacific time)

However, the Public Education system is broken beyond repair. Even great teachers are stifled when it comes to the system they have to work in. They are bitter, they are angry, and they are clearly about only getting through the day. And who can blame them? Parents think the school system should take full responsibility for raising their kids. The kids think that they shouldn't have to go to school and resent people (teachers) telling them what to do and how to do it. Our public education system was designed early on for one thing: to teach the masses how to be good little robots in the work force. I studied to be a teacher after High School and saw the problems first hand. I made the choice to get out long before it made me bitter. Until the public starts seeing the teaching profession as such, the teachers and the school system will only be slightly above Police and Fire when it comes to cutting funding.

Sue May 28, 2008 10:27 am (Pacific time)

But Zelda, we WANT good teachers to stay. We NEED them for the future of our children. Good for you, but that isn't the point!

Zelda May 28, 2008 9:22 am (Pacific time)

Going into this profession, like all professions, intelligent people know the score. I used teaching as a stepping stone to advance my career, and many people do that. We still have free choice, so if it's too hot in the kitchen, get out.

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