What if Teachers were paid like Athletes?

We’ve all seen the memes about athletes making millions of dollars while teachers struggle to get by. It may surprise my conservative friends to learn that I believe teachers are underpaid. On the other hand I believe it’s their own fault!

In my life I have had some extraordinary teachers. Jim Becker instilled in me a love of French and I have become a lifelong francophile and I have traveled to French speaking countries more than a dozen times. Ken Butzier taught me to be a confident public speaker which has served me well professionally and in politics. Ferd Riechman, instilled in me a love of history and I am constantly reading history books. Marge Vargas gave me the freedom in school to pursue photography and I travel almost everywhere with a camera to this day. Don Wiederanders recognized my love of mathematics, logic and introduced me to geometry and proof resulting in me pursuing a degree in mathematics. Lynn Schwandt saw that I was interested in computer programming and gave me access to the school’s computers whenever I wanted and I have turned this into a very satisfying career. Anyone who knows me well can see the influence these teachers had in my life.

Old joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a high school music teacher and a large pizza?

A: A large pizza can feed a family of four!

We’ve all seen the meme, “What if teachers were paid like athletes?”

The problem with teacher pay is that teachers, collectively, through their union have chosen a compensation model guaranteed to keep their pay mediocre. Teachers and the districts that employ them have settled for a system that provides for excellent job security, solid benefits including some that are unheard of in private industry like defined benefit retirement plans and no cost health coverage. Kudos to the NEA, these are all great benefits. The downside is that such a system tends to keep salaries low.

I will not argue with anyone who says that teaching is a critical profession. So why do athletes like LeBron James, Roger Federer, and Payton Manning make hundreds of times more than the average teacher? Professional athletes are the elites in their sports and they have the numbers to prove it.

Take football as an example. There are approximately 1,000,000 high school football players in the US. Of these about 6.5% or 65,000 will play in college. Of these 65,000 about 1.6% or about 1000 will play in the NFL.

At every step in their development, from peewee touch to the pros, football players are evaluated based on their performance against their peers. The best are given playing time, and moved on to the next level. The rest eventually disappear and end up not playing. It’s a brutal system, even a promising player who gets injured, does not qualify academically or even has a slump may be benched and disappear into obscurity.

It’s a capricious system, evaluations are subjective and may not fairly reflect a player’s ability. As an example I have a son who played High School football. He was a leading defenseman on both freshman and sophomore teams. His junior year he sat on the bench and got only 3 minutes playing time on a team with a horrible losing season. Senior year, he was a starting defensive end and awarded all-conference honors. If it were not for a late season injury, he would have gone on and played college ball at some level. (In the end he was a college swimmer earning DIII All-American honors) Now, I am not a football expert and as a parent I try very hard not to second guess my kids coaches, but he didn’t suddenly turn into superman his senior year. He could have played but for whatever reason he didn’t get the chance until he was a senior.

A high school football player has a 0.1% (1 in 1000) chance of making it into the NFL. Anywhere along the way he can be judged, fairly or not, as not up to par or be injured and be cut to never play again.

While I don’t think that there is a workable system whereby teachers can be paid like pro athletes, I do think that teachers could be paid more like engineers or other professionals. But to do so, they will have to give up the economic system under which they currently work. Teachers are always decrying the fact that they are not paid like other professionals, yet they are unwilling to accept some form of merit pay.

I am a software engineer and I am paid considerably more than the average teacher. But teachers, at least in my home state of Iowa, have many benefits that I do not. With tenure, it is difficult for a teacher to be fired, engineers don’t get fired either — we get laid off or downsized sometimes by the tens of thousands.

One of the arguments that teachers use against merit pay is that it is impossible to fairly evaluate what they do. They say that metrics like test scores are not fair because they do not take into account the native ability of students and may be culturally biased. Yet in my profession we have the same thing. I have often been evaluated on the outcome of projects that either succeeded or failed due to factors beyond my control. It is one of the risks in my, and most other professions. The canard that teachers cannot be fairly evaluated is just that. The truth of the matter is that if you ask students, parents, or even other teachers — they will all tell you who are the best teachers and worst teachers.

If teachers want to be paid like other professionals, like engineers, accountants, and lawyers they need to give up the economic model that they have negotiated for themselves and allow themselves to be treated like other professionals. Until they do they should not expect to be paid (or respected) like other professionals.

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