Within a fair and just society, it is reasonable to expect that any given worker will be compensated in direct proportion to the value of his or her work to society as a whole. In this context, it is worth considering the issue of the professional pay of teachers. The essay will be organized into four parts. The first part will consist of a general overview of the issue of professional pay for teachers. Then, the second part will consider the perspective that teachers are paid too little, and the third part will consider the perspective that teachers are paid too much. Finally, the fourth part will engage in a sociological reflection regarding the nature of professional pay within contemporary society in general, with a special focus on professional pay for teachers.
It is worth beginning this essay with a consideration of the basic fact that professional pay for any given work within a capitalist society is usually based on the socially perceived value of the work in question. More specifically, the value of work is generally dependent on the laws of supply and demand (Heakal). If there are a lot of workers available to fill a few jobs, then this would mean that supply exceeds demand, with the result that the value of the work goes down; and conversely, if there are few workers to fill a lot of jobs, then this means that demand exceeds supply, with the result that the value of work goes up. In principle, the capitalist economic system is supposed to eventually produce an equilibrium in which the professional pay for a given job is more or less dependent on the demand for that work relative to the number of people willing to do that work.
In this context, the issue of professional pay for teachers consists of two somewhat separate dimensions. The first dimension consists of the question of whether the laws of supply and demand are adequately reflective in the nature of the work that teachers are doing and the demand for the work of teachers in general. The second dimension consists of the question of whether the laws of supply and demand themselves are just in this case, or whether the laws themselves produce outcomes that are antithetical to common concepts of fairness when it comes to professional pay for teachers. When evaluating the professional pay of teachers, then, the first consideration that must be taken is whether professional pay is in fact in congruence with general economic rules; but the second consideration that must be taken is whether those general rules themselves are adequate for reflecting the nature of teaching work and the level of professional pay that teachers deserve in light of other, non-economic moral criteria.
There would seem to be a great deal of evidence that in terms of simple comparative economics, teachers are paid far too little for the work that they do. Allegretto and Mishel, for instance, have reported the following: "The teacher pay penalty is bigger than ever. In 2015, public school teachers' weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers—compared to just 1.8 percent lower in 1994. This erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers" (paragraph 1). In this quote, the teacher pay penalty refers to the apparent drop in pay that a teacher suffers simply by virtue of being a teacher, as opposed to some other similarly skilled professional. This would imply that teaching work is simply not valued by contemporary society adequately relative to the nature of the work done by teachers, and that there is thus a basic unfairness built into professional pay for teachers.
Likewise, Strauss has articulated the following startling point: "over the past few years, we've seen over 60 percent of teachers working second jobs, dining with their children at food banks, and even selling their blood to make ends meet. Examples of such financial stress and strain can be found in every state in the country . . . Is this the way we want any of our teachers to live?" (paragraph 2). In short, the point here would be that teachers perform high-stress work that often goes beyond normal working hours; it is also work that is highly valuable to society as a whole; and teachers should thus be well taken care of by society, and not need to experience this kind of financial stress for having chosen this noble line of work. This is a fundamentally moral line of argument that suggests that no matter what the strictly rationalistic economic determinants of professional pay for teachers may be, the outcome is unacceptable at a higher level, given the very nature of the work that teachers do for society as a whole.
In a fair society, one would expect a professional to make the same level of money as other similarly skilled professionals; and one would also expect professionals who perform a great service to society to be compensated accordingly. From the perspective that teachers do not receive adequate professional pay, neither of these conditions are met. On the one hand, teachers make less for doing the same level of work as other professionals, which amounts to a kind of tacit penalty rather than reward levied by society against the teaching profession as a whole. And on the other, given the level of service that teachers perform for society—namely, preparing an entire generation for the adult world—the level of compensation that teachers receive is nowhere near reflective of the value and importance of services rendered (Encarnacao). Nevertheless, there are still some stakeholders who suggest that the professional pay for teachers is adequate as it stands, or even that teachers are actually paid too much. It is worth turning attention now to this other perspective on this matter.
There are some studies in the relevant literature that suggest that teachers are actually not paid too little at all. As Weissmann has reported, "That's the provocative conclusion of a new study from two high-profile conservative think tanks. Researchers from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute found that public school teachers take home total compensation that's 52% higher than 'fair-market levels' for professionals with similar cognitive levels" (paragraph 2). From this perspective, the actual intellectual skill level for being a teacher is not all that high, and the pay that teachers currently receive is thus more than adequate—even substantially too high, relative to other professionals who perform at a similar intellectual level. Of course, this flies in the face of the some of the findings previously cited above; and this could perhaps be explained by the fact that the concept of "similar professional" here is being defined in more strictly economic than in more generally performative terms.
It is worth noting that from this perspective, the labor value of the work of teachers should be determined according to strictly economic laws, just as the labor value of most other work within society; this is presumably what is meant by the concept of fair-market levels. This perspective does not engage in further moral considerations regarding the intrinsic merit of the work of teachers and such—for the simple reason that the perspective suggests that all labor within society has intrinsic value, and the actual economic value of the work is to be based not on an abstraction such as intrinsic value but rather on the value produced as the result of the dynamic equilibrium that characterizes the dominant economic system of contemporary society. From this perspective, given the nature of the supply of teachers, the demand for teachers, and the skill level of teachers, the conclusion is produced that if anything, teachers actually receive too much professional pay for the work that they are doing.
In order to reconcile these two different perspectives on professional pay for teachers—or, at least, to prioritize them in a way that enables them to make sense relative to each other—it may be necessary to shift the present discussion to a more sociological consideration of professional pay as such. The question that could be asked here is: should professional pay be determined exclusively by dominant economic laws, or should further moral and pragmatic considerations be taken into account? For example, it may be entirely possible to according to the economic laws of supply and demand, the professional pay received by teachers is adequate and meets the standard of fair market value. However, a further consideration could be undertaken, in which more weight is given to the intrinsic value of the work performed by teachers and the standard of living that they would deserve to expect in return for performing this valuable service for society.
In this context, it is worth referring to Chris Hedge's magisterial sociological treatise entitled Empire of Illusion, in which he defends the general thesis that America has more or less lost all touch with reality, with the general culture as a whole encourage people to drift into the realm of fantasy and illusion. It is worth considering, for example, the disparity between the level of income that a sports star or Hollywood actor makes, versus the level of income that a janitor makes. If the former stopped working, then society as a whole would lose its entertainment value; but if the latter stopped working, then society would be more or less beset by plagues as the result of a total lack of sanitation. And yet, the professional pay of a sports star is in general several orders of magnitude higher than the professional pay of a janitor. In order to explain this phenomenon, it would be necessary to critical evaluate the value structures of society itself, and the potential reasons why people who do fundamentally essential and important jobs are valued less than people whose jobs amount to producing entertainment.
Returning specifically to professional pay for teachers now, the argument can be made that this issue cannot be resolved through strictly economic considerations; rather, higher-level moral considerations are in order. The work done by teachers consists of preparing entire generations of Americans for the adult world; it also consists of teaching generations how to think in a mature way, which is essential to the fabric of a functional democracy. In this context, the suggestion can be made that teachers perform one of the most valuable of all services imaginable to society as a whole. In this context, the question could be asked: why do teachers make so much less than Hollywood actors or sports stars? A strictly economic response to this question would be inadequate. Rather, it would be necessary to raise the level of analysis to the sociological level, and to wonder why we live in a society and culture in which such essential work as teaching is valued so disproportionally low relatively to other forms of work that could only be called non-essential in comparison.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of the issue of professional pay for teachers. The essay introduced the issue of professional pay in general, considered the perspectives that teachers make too little and that they make too much, and finally engaged in a sociological reflection on the nature of professional pay for teachers and others within contemporary society. A key conclusion that has been reached here is that teachers surely make too little in way of professional pay relative to how essential their work is to the fabric of society as a whole, and that this discrepancy is reflective of structural problems in the very essence of contemporary culture.
Allegretto, Sylvia, and Lawrence Mishel. "The Teacher Pay Gap Is Wider than Ever." Economic Policy Institute, 9 Aug. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.epi.org/publication/the- teacher-pay-gap-is-wider-than-ever-teachers-pay-continues-to-fall-further-behind-pay-of-comparable-workers/>.
Encarnacao, Jack. "Teachers Union Rips Education Pay Study." Boston Herald. 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2016/04/teachers_union_rips_educator_pay_study>.
Heakal, R. "Economics Basics: Supply and Demand. Investopedia. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.investopedia.com/university/economics/economics3.asp>.
Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion. New York: Nation Books, 2010.
Ravani, Gary. "Why Public Education Needs Teachers' Unions." EdSource. 27 Jul. 2014. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. <https://edsource.org/2014/why-public-education-needs-teachers-sunions/65723>.
Strauss, Valerie. "Why Teachers' Salaries Should be Doubled—Now" Washington Post. 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/08/16/think-teachers-arent-paid-enough-its-worse-than-you-think/>.
Weissmann, Jordan. "Are Teachers Paid Too Much? How 4 Studies Answered 1 Big Question." The Atlantic. 4 Nov. 2011. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/ archive/2011/11/are-teachers-paid-too-much-how-4-studies-answered-1-big-question/247872/>.