June 03, 2004
Why teachers are "underpaid" compared to orthodontists

Here is an article bemoaning how little teachers are paid in the USA, compared to orthodontists.

And here are the gratuitous pictures used in the article to help explain what else teachers do to make ends meet.

TeachPay1.gif  TeachPay2.gif  TeachPay3.gif

Answer (reprise): a free market in education.

Actually, that would probably result in quite a few fabulously well paid teachers, a lot of adequately paid teachers, and even more very, very badly paid teachers, desperate to get plum jobs but mostly never getting them. Like acting in other words.

The reason that teachers are "underpaid" and orthodontists better paid is that poking about in people's brains is a lot more appealing than poking about in their mouths.

Also, most of teaching is basically child-minding rather than actual teaching, and any old twat can learn to do that, whereas not any old twat can orthodont. Orthodonting even adequately is hard. If done incompetently, huge damage would routinely result after only a few hours of idiotic orthodonting. How often do idiot teachers do the kind of serious and irreparable damage to a pupil that an idiot orthodontist would do almost every time if he was an idiot? Therefore people are rationally willing to pay extra for properly qualified orthodonting.

Plus, nobody can agree what good teaching is, whereas there is widespread agreement about what good orthodonting is. Therefore, people are rationally willing to pay a lot for an actual agreed product, but they skimp on that which cannot be rationally decided on. Instead they (rationally) pick with a cheap pin. The more of a free market in teaching there is, the less this is true, but it would still remain somewhat true, I think, no matter how free the teaching market.

There is more widespread agreement about what a good school is (as opposed to "good teaching"), so people pay fortunes to buy, in fees or in mortgage payments to be in the right area. But this money doesn't find its way through to the mere teachers, on the whole, for the reasons stated above.

Nevertheless, a few free market teachers do already get paid a lot. I have already written here about Tony Buzan and Michel Thomas. They both get paid a lot. As do British TV's star history (two links here) teachers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:41 PM
Category: Economics of education