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Here’s a Bunch of Numbers Showing Just How Bad American Teachers Have It

A new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development paints a stark picture.

Teachers are inarguably some of the most important people in our children’s lives. We trust our children with them for more hours, often, than our children are in the home. And yet how we prioritize and pay them, doesn’t nearly reflect this important duty. (Consider that the national starting average salary for a teacher in the United States is $36,141 dollars.) A lengthy new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) illustrates just how stark the lack of investment our country makes in our teachers. 

About 6 percent of the United States’ GDP, the report finds, is spent on educational institutions. This figure puts us behind New Zealand, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, among other countries. Despite our gradual economic gains since the Great Recession, we spent less money investing in our students in 2014 than we did in 2008, partly a result of public education policyMore troublingly, our student enrollment in these services has decreased since 2008.

Recent studies have shown a stronger correlation between money spent on teachers and student achievement rather than classroom size. This is why it’s so troubling that primary educators in the United States are paid less than 60 percent of the total expenditure of public educational institutions. In other countries such as Luxembourg, educators are paid 20 percent more than our teachers. And while class size is basically average, with about 15 students per classroom in the primary education setting and 25 in the secondary, the numbers don’t mean much. 

What really does matter is how much time teachers spend teaching. One might think that the more time teachers spend in the front of the classroom, the more prepared and educated our children will be. But that’s actually not true.

Globally, teachers spend roughly 750 hours per year in front of the classroom. But in the United States, teachers spend nearly 1000 mandatory hours teaching. That means that each hour a teacher spends in front of a classroom takes away from other important time dedicated to professional and student development. Teachers have plenty of mandatory hours outside of the classroom for such tasks as preparing lessons, grading student work, communicating with parents, and counseling students. This means that the more time teachers spend in the classroom, the less they get to spend helping students grow in other ways.

And when it comes to helping students cross the achievement gap both internationally and across national socioeconomic gaps in the domestic sphere, professional development is crucial. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that investing in the professionalization of early childhood caregivers and teachers could greatly benefit both high-income and low-income families as well as the teachers themselves. When a recent UK study showed the benefits of investing in early childhood education programs, it was so persuasive that it inspired the country to invest in public preschool for all. But in 23 states in the U.S., full-time preschool for four-year olds was more expensive than in-state public college tuition.

It’s a simple fix: invest more in teachers. In the United States, teachers are paid half of the salary of their similarly educated counterparts. Competitive pay remains an indicator of how many people will actually go into certain sectors. Sure, lower secondary teachers do have the opportunity to make more money the longer they teach, their base salary is pitiful. If we let our teachers know how much they matter, for theirs (and our children’s) sakes, everything should improve.