Getting what you pay for in the classroom


When we think of the most influential people in our lives growing up, we’re likely to point out our parents, some members of our extended family, maybe even a religious leader or two.
But no list is complete without teachers. It’s a role so important in our development that we spend nearly 13,000 hours of our childhood in front of teachers — whether we’re learning long division, the Civil War, natural selection, Newton’s laws of motion, or even where, exactly, New York is on the planet.
Education is vital, and we depend on teachers more than anyone else to deliver it. Yet when it comes time for us to show our gratitude for their extraordinary contribution to our lives, we instead focus on debates on whether teachers are overpaid, underworked and demanding just too much.
It’s not that exploring whether teachers are appropriately compensated isn’t important — in the public sphere, at least, it’s taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars that pay their salaries. However, such discussions must be done in a way that not only provides an accurate and complete look at educator salaries, but also still respects the essential role teachers fill.
A recent analysis conducted by Newsday found that more than half of all teachers on Long Island — 31,000 of them — are making at least $100,000 a year. A handful of them earned even more — upward of $300,000 and even $400,000. Numbers, we assume, we should be outraged about.
But those specific large amounts were anomalies, not the norm. Three teachers — two with more than four decades in the classroom — retired from the Central Islip school district with a mountain of sick days for which they were due compensation. These are teachers who were in the classroom nearly every day, providing consistency for their students and saving their district the need to hire substitutes.
Making this more atypical is that Central Islip has a rather unique — and far more generous — benefits package compared with other districts on Long Island.
On average, however, teachers on Long Island made a little more than $110,000 per year. That’s what the Empire Center for Public Policy told Newsweek, pointing out that that average is higher than any other region in the state, and higher than average salaries in other states. Three of the 11 school districts with the highest wage earners were in Nassau County — Jericho, Great Neck and Syosset.
Teachers have built-in holiday breaks —including the entire summer. They are done teaching by early afternoon. Their jobs aren’t physical. Who hasn’t heard these cries about teachers whenever discussions about compensation crop up?
But we also cannot forget that teachers take work home with them. They are there after school, many times giving an extra hand to our kids, helping them get the most out of their educational experience through sports or other extracurricular activities.
And while some might argue that teachers make up for lower pay than their private-sector counterparts with better benefits, even that can be a tricky mound to stand on. A 2021 report from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College concluded that while teachers might earn the same as those with similar educational backgrounds in the private sector, ongoing across-the-board benefits cuts through pension reform means that new teachers have a far bleaker economic outlook than their more experienced colleagues.
That’s bad. “Uncompetitive compensation may make it harder to recruit high-quality individuals into the teaching profession,” the report stated. Low-quality teachers — or worse, simply not enough teachers — means potentially low-quality education.
For a country struggling to keep up with many of our international competitors, an educational system in decline will only make the situation worse.
The United States already falls below the global average in math test scores, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That put us well behind Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. And while our children’s science scores are higher than the global average, the United States remains behind Singapore, Macao, Estonia, Japan and Finland.
We must keep our public schools costs under control — absolutely. But just like anything else, we get what we pay for. And if we pay for high-quality teachers here on Long Island, we’ll continue to get them.