We’re constantly being told that we need to spend more money on public education, especially on teachers’ salaries.

Indeed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gone so far as to claim that American teachers are “desperately underpaid.”  

But is this true?

In a new paper, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine of The Heritage Center for Data Analysis, find that teachers are, contrary to the conventional wisdom, making out pretty well.

The authors start out with this underlying assumption:

The teaching profession is crucial to America's society and economy, but public-school teachers should receive compensation that is neither higher nor lower than market rates.

Arne Duncan is not going to like the study’s findings:

We conclude that public-school teacher salaries are comparable to those paid to similarly skilled private sector workers, but that more generous fringe benefits for public-school teachers, including greater job security, make total compensation 52 percent greater than fair market levels, equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year. Teacher compensation could therefore be reduced with only minor effects on recruitment and retention. Alternatively, teachers who are more effective at raising student achievement might be hired at comparable cost.

One way that the spend-more crowd will try to debunk this study is that, when the education degree required for teacher certification is factored in, teachers end up with a higher level of education and may actually earn less than somebody with the same number of years spent in an institution of higher learning.

In this, the study raises one of my (many) pet peeves: the amount of time would-be pedagogues spend taking ed courses, when they could be learning about history, science, or art—you know, the sorts of things that make one a better teacher.  

Biggs appears in a blog post today to affirm my view that more education and fewer education courses might well be a good idea:

Most teachers have Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in education, and most people with education degrees are teachers. Decades of research has shown that education is a less rigorous course of study than other majors: Teachers enter college with below-average SAT scores but receive much higher GPAs than other students.

It may be that a degree in education simply does not reflect the same underlying skills and knowledge as a degree in, say, history or chemistry. When we compare salaries based on objective measures of cognitive ability — such as SAT, GRE, or IQ scores — the teacher salary penalty disappears.

We are often told that teachers could make more money if they forsook the classroom for something more lucrative. Biggs and Richwine find that, contrary to this claim, people who leave another career to teach actually get a raise, while teachers who get into another line of work take a cut.

I was extremely fortunate to have some great teachers, and I know that there are many smart and dedicated teachers—my niece, for instance, who adored “her” kids and went all out trying to ensure that they learned to love American history as much as she does.

The reason I wanted to post on this study is not that I am anti-teacher. But we must be realistic about teacher pay, and we must realize that, when members of this administration pretend that teachers are underpaid, they might—just might—be catering to the vastly important education unions.