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Jan. 8 2010 - 12:43 am | 3,274 views | 1 recommendation | 22 comments

Why teachers will never make as much money as lawyers

Last week I was watching TV and heard someone drop the common line, “teachers and lawyers should switch salaries.” I would like to think that most people understand why members of these two professions are paid the way they are, but since there seems to be some confusion out there I’d like to provide clarification on this extremely complex issue.

Just kidding…it’s not complex at all. Basically, salaries are structured as they are because public school teachers are paid with tax dollars, and highly-paid lawyers work in the private sector where they are paid by individuals and companies who are willing to spend lots of money in return for lawyers’ services. In short, the reason teachers are not paid more in the United States is that most people don’t want to pay higher taxes.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009-2010 Back-To-School guide, there were 7.2 million teachers (ranging from preschool to college) in the United States in 2008 and their average salary was $50,800. (This particular document isn’t specific about whether the 7.2 million includes private school teachers, or if the average salary includes college professors, so these numbers may be off by a little bit. But that doesn’t impact that larger point I’m attempting to make.) Some simple math–7.2 million x $50,800–shows us that each year we spent about $366 billion of our tax dollars on teacher salaries (most of this comes from state and local taxes, and not from the federal government).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook for lawyers, the median salary 9 months after graduation for lawyers in private practice is $108,500 and for lawyers in business is $69,100. (For lawyers in government that number drops to $50,000, and for those in clerkships it drops to $48,000.)

So let’s say that we as a society were interested in moving teachers closer to what a lawyer in the private sector would make, and we decided that the average salary for teachers should be increased by 25%, to $63,500. Multiply that by 7.2 million teachers and we would be paying $457 billion per year in teacher salaries, an increase of $91 billion (or approximately the annual cost of the health care reform bill).

I don’t have a strong opinion about teacher salaries being increased. My feeling is, if you’re a teacher and don’t feel you’re getting paid enough, you have the freedom to move to a different profession. I would recommend asking your principal for a raise, but unions don’t allow teachers to do that. As this salary schedule for Chicago Public Schools shows–see page 3 for the 2009-2010 school year–teachers are locked into a salary based on years of experience and level of education. Collective bargaining prevents individuals from making a case to their superiors for higher pay.

That said, if teachers, citizens, or politicians engage in hypotheticals about teacher salaries, they should at least be honest about the cost of providing teachers with a meaningful increase. And to raise the average teacher salary to a point where it doesn’t even match the median salary of a business lawyer 9 months after graduation, we would need to pay for the equivalent of a second health care reform bill, every year.

Sorry to burst anyone’s teachers-should-get-a-collective-pay-raise bubble, but the reality is that it’s never going to happen.


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  1. collapse expand

    It will never happen because…people refuse to pay higher taxes? Because the wealthy don’t care that much since their kids, of course, attend private, prep and boarding schools? Because education isn’t seen as a valuable (enough) service?

    I often wonder if the whole structure of teachers being unionized doesn’t complicate this issue as well. I see someone who wants to teach, and accept a lower wage, as someone not necessarily purely dedicated to education but — however unfairly (partly because of the unions) – someone who wants a decent wage for a steady, safe, secure job with a pension. You trade higher risks for lower rewards.

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    To play lawyer’s advocate here… I would note that the average lawyer doesn’t actually make that much more than a teacher. The median salary for lawyers who graduated in 2006, as noted recently by Felix Salmon is $62,000: http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2010/01/07/the-costs-and-benefits-of-grad-school/

    Lawyers in private practice do make big bucks — from six to seven figures — but don’t professors at universities make large salaries in comparison with high school teachers? That seems like a fair parallel to draw.

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      Kashmir — I agree with fairlingtonblade and will use my own experience as an example. In 2008-2009, I made $56,000 as a teacher. It was my third year of teaching in Chicago, and I was at the 5th of 6 levels based on education (master’s + 45 hours of graduate credit). My salary likely was in the top 5% for people coming into their 3rd year of teaching in Chicago, and Chicago is one of the top-paying school districts in the country. Even then, my salary was 10% less than the median lawyer who graduated in 2006. As far as university professors go, most do not make 6 figures, and those who do tend to make under $150,000. This is seen in the University of Virginia’s salary list from 2008-2009 when you include only professors (and not people working in the hospital system or deans): http://blurblawg.typepad.com/files/university-of-virginia-faculty-salaries.pdf

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    It isn’t fair to compare the salary of lawyers who graduated in 2006 with all teachers. That’s basically saying that an entry level lawyer still makes more than a teacher with X years of experience, where X is the average.

    Including professors at universities is tricky as teaching is only a part of their work. At many schools, research is what drives their interest and teaching is something that has to be done.


  4. collapse expand

    Michael is right that we will never pay more taxes to lift the salaries of teachers, so long as the federal government is not included in the equation. And even then, we would never really pay teachers what they deserve as long as we continue to think raising armies are better than raising smart people.

  5. collapse expand

    Here’s a comment I just received from a reader via e-mail: “I feel a big flaw in your argument lies in private school teachers. They don’t really make any more money (sometimes a lot less if I am correct) and their salaries are not paid by tax dollars. So why would their salaries be just as low if your argument about tax dollars is correct?”

    That’s a good question. I’d love to hear what others think while I consider a response myself.

  6. collapse expand

    There are many reasons lawyers make more than teachers. 1. Teachers often get the summer off. 2. Teachers work school hours. Typically, this may be 8-3. Lawyers work lawyer hours. This is a much, much longer day. 3. Lawyers have to pay for law school. Try to find a teacher that graduates from school with $150,000 in student loans. 4. Teachers have job security. Ever heard of a lawyer with tenure?

    There are more reasons I could think of, but why not start with these.

  7. collapse expand

    The far-right pundits tend to characterize universities as some kind of liberal brainwashing enterprise and many of them have similar thoughts about public K-12 (mostly due to political correctness and separation of church and state).

    If they want to see those institutions become Republican overnight, why don’t they simply advocate making teachers rich? If teachers were all making $200,000 per year, I guarantee we’d have a sea change in public education, one way or another.

  8. collapse expand

    Teachers will not make the money of lawyers, but then, they don’t have their graves pissed on by former students.

  9. collapse expand

    Some things worth mentioning: new lawyers at pricey firms tend to work 90 hour work weeks, at a minimum–even in the summer. I’ve been a new teacher and I know it takes a lot of work…but not that much work. I’ve also been to law school, and I’ll take teaching any day. Come to that, so do the law school professors who take massive pay cuts to teach.

    And teachers do not advance based on their ability to teach. Sad but very true. They are rewarded for their continuing education (K-12) and for their publications (university), and their years of service, regardless of how good those years have been. Lawyers, on the other hand, have a fairly expedient performance criterion: wins and losses.

    Also, successful students don’t have to pay 33% contingency fees to the teachers who help them succeed.

  10. collapse expand

    You make the assertion that people don’t want to pay higher taxes to pay their teachers well. I’m not so sure that’s completely true. They don’t want to pay higher taxes if the quality of the education is mediocre. But if the school system is great, people purposely move to towns in which high taxes are the norm. Take Scarsdale, NY for example. Admittedly, this is a wealthy community. But they are getting the equivalent of a private prep-school education for a lot less money than they would have to pay if they stayed in NYC and sent the kids to private school. Check out this article from a few years ago in the Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/nyregion/05weteac.html?_r=1&pagewanted=2

    In California, where I live now, we have the double whammy of having poor state funding and a lack of control over local property taxes. So people are frustrated that they live in communities with homes that are valued upwards of $1 million, and the public schools don’t get paid by the state. So, in their minds, raising property taxes will only go into the black hole that is Sacramento. On the other hand, they are perfectly willing to pass local parcel taxes, because that money goes directly into the local school system. Locally controlled money is really the answer.

  11. collapse expand

    it’s not a private vs. public issue. the issue is that society in general is not willing pay teachers a high salary. there are likely a number of reasons for this, but ultimately it comes down to perceived value. whether it’s private school or public, people don’t think that the service that teachers provide is worth a high salary. so they aren’t will to pay higher taxes or higher tuition as a result. an argument for why private school salaries are often even lower could be that teachers aspire to these jobs more than public school and are therefore willing to accept lower compensation in return for what they perceive to be a better teaching experience.

    • collapse expand

      TJ – I agree and think that part of the “perceived value” argument is that people often cannot see tangible results of good teaching. Whereas cars clearly are produced by engineers and stories clearly are produced by writers, students are not necessarily a product of teachers or schools. As a society, we tend to attribute a person’s success to personal characteristics (motivation, work ethic, focus, etc.) or quality of parenting much more than to teachers or school. When the economy is doing well, for example, few people give credit to teachers or professors; instead, we talk about business owners’ ingenuity or hard work. And when teachers are talked about, comments usually focus on mentorship, support, or inspiration (e.g., “Mr. XYZ helped me get through a tough time”; “Ms. ABC encouraged me to take risks as a writer”) as opposed to content or pedagogy (e.g., “Ms. JKL taught me to understand the underpinnings of algebra and helped me transfer that knowledge to my physics class”).

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  12. collapse expand

    It would be interesting to know if those statistics are based on a full working year (does this include a 2 – 3 month summer vacation, and would teachers who taught summer school make more?). Also, how does the complete compensation package — retirement, health benefits — factor into this? Here in California, vested teachers have a pretty good retirement package.

    • collapse expand

      One problem with the education profession–entirely self-imposed–is how teachers and the public understand what teachers do and how they are compensated for that. For example, teachers are salaried employees. However, in many places those salaries are computed based on a short work week. When I received my paychecks from Chicago Public Schools, they included a breakdown telling me that I had worked 62.5 hours over the two-week pay period–31.25 hours per week. It always upset me that the union, district, and city only considered the time I spent in front of my kids (5 periods per day) or in my prep periods (2 periods per day) when thinking about my salary. My hourly rate, not including health benefits or pension, was $45. Personally, I would have been happy to keep the same salary with a lower hourly rate if the system at least acknowledged that most teachers spent time outside of the 8-3 school day planning lessons, grading papers, calling parents, making home visits, etc. The problem is, because we were required to punch in and punch out each day, and because we could show up at 7:59 and leave at 3:01, some teachers had an 8-3 mentality and did not work outside that time period.

      Similarly, most teachers are not sitting idly during the summer. They do have 9-10 weeks when they are not required to report to work, but most are spending at least some time revising lessons, taking classes, and doing other things to improve their practice and prepare for the coming year.

      I am not an apologist for teachers, but I do find it disturbing that the first thing many people think of when it comes to teaching is the vacation time. The first thing I think of is the burnout from working so much.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  13. collapse expand

    What is left unsaid in your post, Michael, is whether paying teachers more would get us better teachers. Those of us on Trueslant and elsewhere who chose to make a living as journalists have, with a few exceptions (most of whom are Malcolm Gladwell), chosen to make less than we might have made in another field. With the upending of the old media and the exciting but calamitous transition to the new, that has become worse, leading many of us to public relations, corporate writing jobs, or unemployment. Nevertheless, journalism is still a big draw, at least for the students who seem to be flocking to journalism schools. And for me and many of my colleagues.

    The same is true of teaching, I’d submit. The best teachers are those who are truly committed and talented. You might argue that paying them less weeds out the profiteers and leaves us with a higher percentage of dedicated teachers. At the same time, I think your argument regarding taxes breaks down. Nobody wants to pay any taxes, but we all do. And most of us grudgingly accept that obligation. Nothing is stopping us, as a society, from devoting more of our collective capital to teaching and teachers. Even billions of dollars in supplemental funding for teachers–however it might be structured–would have an insignificant impact on each of us individually. Would it get us better teachers? That is a difficult question. I don’t think we should presume that it would; I don’t know. But it would be an interesting experiment.

  14. collapse expand

    Lawyers get paid more because no one wants to be a lawyer. Being a teacher is awesome. What other job gives you a 3-month vacation every year?

    • collapse expand

      Agreed, in the sense that many teachers have 9-10 weeks of unstructured time each year in the summer (though a number of school systems around the country are moving a portion of their schools to a year-round track, where kids and teachers have 3 sets of 3-week breaks in order to keep better momentum for student learning). However, I do think that the focus on vacation takes away from the job itself. For example, in what job is a person expected to closely supervise up to 150 people per day? Teachers present to, answer questions of, discipline, and build relationships with students all day, every day. They have to be “on” in this capacity for at least 4-5 hours per day (i.e., when kids are in the classroom). There is no chance to work from home for a day, or spend the day with earphones in quietly doing research or e-mailing in one’s office. This is not to say teaching is harder than lawyering; it is to say that teaching is exhausting because of the intense personal interactions teachers are required to build and maintain with students, combined with the lack of flexibility in one’s daily schedule.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  15. collapse expand


    As a profession, we must be more effiecient with the money currently used to supprot teachers’ salaries before we simply say, “We need more money.” In general, our compensation systems have not changed significantly in over 100 hundres years, and they reward years of experience and “seat time” of acquired graduate credits. Neither of these factors gurantee a quality educator. I assume you can cite personal examples of veteran colleagues with did the minimum and earned much greater monetary compensation than you did despite your committment to your craft. Education must clean up its own house. I believe greater salaries may be possible, but it will require a complete “innovation” with regard to compensation systems. What it should or could look like is open to debate.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.