Some Common Misconceptions About Public Schools

Copyright © Nels Tomlinson 2004, 2005, 2006
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Here are some misconceptions that many people have about American public schools, and some answers to them. Some of these are questions which should be frequently asked, but aren't.

Misconception: Teachers are under-paid.


Under-paid compared to what? Back in the 1950s and '60s, there wasn't a teacher shortage, and pay was low. In 1955, there were an average of 30 students per teacher, and the average teacher's salary was just under $24,000 in 1992 dollars. By 1992, there were an average of 19 (elementary) and 14 (secondary) students per teacher, while salaries averaged almost $35,000, in those same 1992 dollars. The work load (measured in students) has gone down, while the pay has increased by almost 50%.

Misconception: There is a teacher shortage because teachers are under-paid.


As I showed above, teacher pay isn't as bad as it was in the '50s, when we didn't have a teacher shortage. In 1991, private schools paid an average of $21,000, while public school teachers were making $33,000 on average. Private schools don't have a teacher shortage. Public schools have a teacher shortage, but I don't think it's caused by low pay.

I think there are two reasons for the shortage of teachers for the public schools. First, there are the certification requirements are set by the union (the NEA), specifically as a barrier to entry, to artificially keep the supply down. This keeps out many subject-matter experts, like retired engineers and physicists, who would otherwise make a second career of teaching high school math and physics.

The second reason for our teacher shortage is that the people who want to help children educate themselves will find working in the public schools frustrating. The schools are bureaucracies, where teachers who care enough about kids to ``buck the system'' are given bad performance reviews, and teachers who blindly follow the administration, whatever harm it does their students, are rewarded. Teachers who really care about kids are going to burn out, and get out, faster than the ones who don't. The shortage of good teachers is far worse than the shortage of teachers!

People go into teaching for one of two reasons: either they really, passionately care about educating other people's children, or they realize that they don't have the brains and ambition to make it in a more lucrative field. Either way, low pay isn't going to keep them out.

So, are public school teachers underpaid? I'm sure that some are. I'm sure that the work load measured in paperwork and in bureaucratic bother has gone up since the '50s. The private schools show, however, that we can hire good teachers for less than what we're now paying in the public schools.

On this subject, see: An Exploration of the Pay Levels Needed to Attract Students with Mathematics, Science and Technology Skills to a Career in K-12 Teaching in which Anthony Milanowski tells us that low pay is not the only reason that many potential math and science teachers don't go into teaching.

Misconception: Teaching is stressful.


Unfortunately, this one isn't entirely misconceived. If you really care about helping children to educate themselves, you will find teaching stressful. The public schools are intended to prevent (or at least they succeed best at preventing) children from educating themselves. On the other hand, if you don't much care about the kids, there isn't much stress in most schools. You work your hours, you forget about work until tomorrow. It's just like any other semi-skilled trade. Again, good teachers find teaching harder than the bad teachers do. If you really care about teaching children, you will be more likely to burn out and get out.

Of course, there are public schools which are so chaotic that the teachers are assaulted by the students. Even the uncaring teachers are going to find that sort of environment stressful.

Misconception: Teachers work long hours.


Long hours? Normally, teachers work for nine months. If they are to work the usual 2,000 hours per year in those nine months, they'll have to average about 54 hours per week. That's about two hours per day of homework, seven days a week, but only for nine months. If you could get by with an extra hour per day, on top of your eight hours, plus four hours on the weekend, you'd only work about 1840 hours per year.

Again, if you really care about the kids, you'll put in a lot of hours. You may well work the typical 2000 hours in a year, but it's only for nine months. If you don't care about the kids, you're probably working less than 2000 hours in nine months, even though you probably work more than a forty hour week. So whether this is a misconception depends on how you count: even bad teachers are going to work more than the standard 40 hours per week, while even good teachers probably won't go much over the standard 2000 hours per year.

Think about all this: the people who really care about kids and education do find teaching stressful and time-consuming. The bums, who are just in it for the money, because it's the easiest gig they can find, find it less time-consuming and less stressful. We are discouraging the group of teachers we want to keep, and more money isn't going to fix what's bothering them. Offering more money isn't going to do much for the caring group, since they aren't in it for the money. Offering more money probably won't bring back the caring teachers who've gotten burned out fighting the bureaucracy and left. It might attract a brighter, more capable class of bums, but I'm not at all sure that would be a good thing.

Misconception: Public Schools Are Underfunded


In the 19989-1990 school year, Harvard paid $7,800 per student in operating expenses. In that same year, Boston public schools paid $7,700 in operating expenses per student. No one says that Harvard is under funded, and I think we'd all expect that educating college students should cost a lot more than elementary kids. It looks as if the ``public schools are under funded'' theory is a non-starter.

Misconception: Students in Other Countries Outscore U.S. Students, So Our Schools Need More Money


It's a fact that U.S. public school students routinely score lower on standardized tests than students in many other countries. Here's another fact: those other countries all spend far less per student on education than we do. In 1989, of the countries which showed higher test score for school kids than did the U.S., all spent less. Spanish kids scored higher than U.S. kids, but Spain spent only $938 per kid. Of course Spain is a low-cost place, so Japan and Germany might be fairer comparisons. They spent $2,243 and $2,487, respectively, to outscore us. We spent $4083 per student that year. We spent nearly twice as much as money, to get far less.

Home-schooled U.S. students, on the other hand, routinely score in the 80th percentile on standardized tests. This puts them on a par with students in many of these higher-scoring countries. The average home schooling family spends less per student today than Spain did in 1989.

Don't try to tell us the U.S. public schools just need more money!

Misconception: Public schools provide necessary socialization.


The short answer is: they do exactly the opposite of that. Socialization is what happens when one is in society, in ``the real world''. Schools, and anything else which pulls one out of the real world, interfere with socialization. The long answer you will find in my essay on socialization and public schooling.
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