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Why Don't Teachers Get Paid Like Doctors?
By David W. Kirkpatrick (05/01)

That was a question Chris Matthews posed to William Bennett on Matthews' program "Hardball" on April 24. It's a question often posed by teachers themselves, and their unions.

Matthews also asked the former Secretary of Education what he thought good teachers should be paid and Bennett replied $80-85,000. In fact, there are school districts in the nation where teachers earn that much and more, even though the pay is according to a scale applied to all teachers, rather than on individual merit.

In reference to the specific question about the relative pay of teachers and doctors, Matthews noted doctors often earn $200,000 or more a year in gross income. Bennett replied that teachers don't reach that level because of their unions, which object to merit pay, or to some teachers earning more than others with equivalent experience and credits.

There is something to that, but it is only part of the story. Teachers didn't receive equivalent pay with doctors before there were effective teacher unions, which is to say, before the 1960s, nor will they in the unlikely event that their unions disappear.

For one thing, teachers are not required to undergo anything like the preparation required of doctors in the number of years required or the financial cost, which finds many new doctors burdened with a debt far beyond that experienced by any new teacher. The qualifications required to even enter a medical training program exceed anything required by even the strictest teacher preparation program. It has been repeatedly noted that the standards to enter and successfully complete a teaching pre-service program at virtually any of the nation's 1200 teacher education programs are the easiest of any collegiate professional degree program.

The 1200 teacher education programs not only vastly exceed the number of nation's pre-med programs, they vary widely in their enrollments with some so small that it is essentially impossible to have a quality program. Fewer than half of them, about 550, are accredited by NCATE, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, and there are questions about the value of the NCATE accreditation program itself. Some of the nation's most respected schools of education, at prestigious institutions, don't bother to acquire NCATE accreditation.

By the way, if you wonder why there is such a proliferation of collegiate teacher education programs it has little or nothing to do with the institution's need to prepare teachers. Rather, it is because the colleges make a profit on them. Most institutions charge a standard tuition regardless of the program a student enters. An education program requires no expensive equipment, small classes, or any of the other factors that result in an expensive program. For the most part all it requires is someone at the front of the class doing talking most of the time, plus some time spent as a student teacher. Thus much of the money prospective teachers pay in tuition can be used by the institution to underwrite other programs or even non-educational costs.

Beyond the technicalities, however, there are other significant reasons why teachers aren't paid like doctors, and they never will be. One is the weight of numbers. There are five to six times as many public school teachers as there are doctors. Thus, even if in theory everyone agreed on equivalent pay, it would cost five to six times as much to pay teachers at the same average level as doctors. It will never happen.

In addition, while education has more specialized certificates than any other profession - one to be an elementary teacher, another to be a secondary teacher, a third to be a special education teacher, etc., - not to mention administration, guidance counseling, and the like - the differences are often more apparent than real and don't begin to make the distinctions that occur in medicine between family practitioners, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and so on, all of which, in turn, require lengthier, more detailed and costlier training than in education, and, again, much stricter entry qualifications.

A key role that teacher unions, and most teachers themselves, play in limiting teacher salaries is their constant effort to reduce class size, an effort which, unfortunately, most of the public supports. Let it be clear, Class Size Does Make a Difference. Repeat after me, Class Size Does Make a Difference. But it is a difference that depends on a great many variables, including the subject, teacher qualities, grade level, teaching method, etc., etc. That it makes a difference based on some arbitrary number - 25, 20, 15, pick your own number - makes absolutely no educational sense. Economically this is about the most expensive and disastrous "reform" that can be made. As but one sad example of our inability to learn this fact, in the past few years California has spent an additional $4 billion, that's billion, with a "b", reducing class sizes with not only minimal gains - nowhere has it justified the cost, but, in some instances, negative results.

The insistence that more and more teachers should be hired so each can teach fewer and fewer pupils, while expecting all of these growing numbers of teachers to be paid higher and higher salaries is, instead, a guarantee that average teacher salaries will be lower than might otherwise be the case. By and large, the public is not really concerned about the salaries of individual teachers, anymore than they are about the income of individual doctors, some of whom earn more than $1 million dollars a year. What they are concerned about is the total bill for public schooling, that is, the taxes they pay.

While it won't happen, one example should make this clear. If the salaries of public school teachers could be doubled while the taxes the public pays could be cut in half, do you think the public would go along with that? Do you think there would be anyone in opposition?

Finally, while not exhaustive of this subject, and this is not a misprint, teachers don't get paid by doctors because they don't get paid like doctors.

That is, they don't get paid an equivalent amount because they don't get paid in a similar manner.

Doctors are professionals who work on a mutually acceptable basis with their patients, with rare exceptions, such as in the military. Aside from these exceptions, no one is required to use the services of a particular doctor and/or to pay that doctor's fees. It is the number of patients they attract, and the fees they can charge, that determine how much each doctor is paid.

Teachers, while often referred to as professionals, especially by themselves, are in actuality public employees. Parents rarely have a say as to which teacher(s) their children have, and even less to say in what teachers get paid, either individually or collectively.

In brief, too many teachers, who want to be paid as much as doctors, or other professionals, are afraid functioning like doctors and other professionals, on a mutually acceptable basis with those they serve. To their own detriment, they oppose implementing the constitutional right of universal parental choice (Pierce vs. the Society of Sisters, the U.S. Supreme Court , 268 U.S. 510, June 1, 1925) whereby they would have to attract students on a voluntary basis, and they could then be paid accordingly.

Parental, or school, choice, will free teachers, more than students or parents, just as, in medicine, it is the doctors who are freer than their patients. Doctors make the basic medical decisions, and rightly so. What patients ask, and receive, is the right, and ability, to go to the doctor of their choice.

In the final analysis, teachers don't get paid like doctors because they don't and won't practice like doctors. As long as they insist on having a captive audience and to be collectively paid on a standard basis, they will be the victims of their own insecurity.


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Copyright 2001, David W. Kirkpatrick

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