Higher but also more flexible teacher salaries

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills


If one were to ask today’s education ministers which topics were at the forefront of their mind, they would almost certainly refer to the quality of the teaching work force in their country. Countries have been looking towards combination of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ policies to address quality concerns regarding teachers. ‘Stick’ policies mainly include strengthening accountability and teacher evaluation procedures, sometimes linked to student achievement measures. But many countries understand that tightening the screws on teachers might not be the best answer;  the attractiveness of the teaching profession also comes into play. They are concerned that they don’t get the most promising students in teacher training, that they don’t recruit the best graduates in the teaching profession, and that many of them leave the profession too soon. And several countries fear being confronted with / the confrontation of teacher shortages in specific subject fields, but also more generally as the ageing teaching work force will result in important replacement problems in the near future.  A bigger ‘carrot’ might also be part of the solution.

The compensation of professionals is a complex issue, with many costs and benefits entering the equation of the relative attractiveness of a profession in an increasingly competitive market. Salaries are seen as part of the full package which also includes medical insurance, pensions, etc. In the case of the teaching profession, several secondary benefits – such as the work-life balance or the autonomy in the time-organisation of the tasks in relationship to the overall work load –play an important role in the  student’s decision-making. But the monetary compensation in the form of salaries is a crucial component of the package.

The most recent issue of the Education Indicators in Focus series provides the comparative statistical evidence on the salaries of teachers. The positive side of the picture is that in virtually all OECD countries, teachers’ salaries increased in real terms between 2000 and 2011. This trend coincided with a general rise in the qualifications needed to enter the teaching profession. However, the brief also shows enormous/ significant differences between countries in the relative pay of teachers, measured against the salaries of tertiary qualified professionals in general. As the graph above shows some countries pay their teachers up to 30% more than the average for tertiary educated professionals, but there are many more which pay them up to 30% less. The OECD average for upper secondary teachers is 89% of that benchmark salary. For lower-secondary school teachers it is 85% and for primary school teachers it is 82%.

Even if partially compensated with various other benefits, these figures do not support  the claim that teachers are among the better paid professionals. Their level of monetary compensation does not match the increasing social expectations and demands being placed on teachers or the ambitions of policy makers to recruit future teachers in the upper ratio of skills distribution of tertiary qualified graduates. Budgetary concerns, with which many countries are confronted, preclude massive increases in the short term. The expectation that a demographic decline in the size of the student population would create some room for salary increases, did not materialize due to a higher participation to education as a result of the economic crisis. Still, it is difficult to see how countries will be able to resolve their concerns in regard to teacher recruitment, without including higher compensation in the package of teacher policies.

The brief also reveals another important point: the rigidity of the salary structure of teachers. Statutory salaries are mainly determined by the level of education and by the age of teachers, formal criterions for which the rationality is difficult to ascertain (why should a primary school teacher be less educated and less well paid than an upper secondary one?). There still seems to be very little diversification or flexibility in the compensation of teachers. This fact is at odds with developments in other highly educated professions. The role of remuneration in the attractiveness of the teaching profession is perhaps not so much determined by its average level, but instead by the more specific relationship of salaries and tasks and demands, as well as the way teachers can positively influence their salaries through excellent performance. Countries should use salary flexibility to address specific policy concerns, such as recruiting/placing the best teachers in the most demanding schools. Teachers deserve a better compensation, but excellent teachers in demanding jobsare the most deserving.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 21, Eric Charbonnier
International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2014
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm
Related blog post:
The ever growing generation gap in the classroom, Dirk Van Damme

Chart source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013: Indicator D3.1  (www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm)

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