The usually reliable and cool Hechinger Report blew one last week, reporting “… I always thought that many developed nations paid their teachers far more than we do in the United States. So I was surprised to see that U.S. public school teachers are the sixth highest paid teachers in the world, according [to UNESCO].” Now to be fair, that is what UNESCO said. But maybe journalists need to be a wee bit more skeptical?
Here’s the UNESCO picture that Hechinger reproduced. I’ve added the big red cross-out to keep the picture from spreading further.
If you have a minute, do what I did and take a ruler to the picture to figure out what UNESCO thinks American teachers get paid. Looks to me like about $105 per day. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, average public elementary school teacher pay in 2011 was $54,704. Let’s see, $54,704 divided by $105 comes out to 521 days per year. Something’s a little odd, no?
Elementary school arithmetic aside, purchasing power parity is the wrong, wrong, wrong way to compare salaries. It is true, for example, American teachers are paid more than South Korean teachers. But then, most American’s get paid more than most Koreans. America’s a richer country, you know. According to my eyeballing of the graph, UNESCO thinks American teachers get paid 40 percent more than Korean teachers. Maybe. But per capita GDP in the U.S. is 60 percent higher than in Korea. So comparing American teachers to other Americans relative to comparing Korean teachers to other Koreans, American teachers actually come out well behind.
The best way to look at teacher salaries in developed countries is probably to look at the ratio of teacher salaries relative to the salaries of other college-educated workers. The latter is the relevant hiring pool. Here’s a link to the right way to do it.
The folks at the Hechinger Report should have stuck with their first instincts, “many developed nations paid their teachers far more than we do.”