We’ve heard it or seen the sentiment before: Wouldn’t it be great if teachers were paid like sports stars? While I agree with that sentiment to a degree (I’d prefer only the really good ones be paid that, and there are some lousy ones out there), I wonder if we ever really stop and think what it would take for that to happen. Well, here’s one viewpoint, from an article in the Wall Stree Journal about a South Korean teacher who makes $4 million a year.
To summarize, South Korea’s education system (2nd in the world) is so competitive that most kids come home from their usual day of school and spend the evening with paid tutors. And it’s those paid tutors who are the ones making all the money. According to this survey, South Korean public school teachers make about half of what their US counterparts make per year. But as a tutor, the best teachers can make millions. In the case of Kim Ki-hoon, the subject of the article, he teaches classes, makes videos of those classes, and then sells access online at $4 per hour.
Could we pay teachers a million dollars a year here in America? Yes, and no. I don’t think our tax base would support it, for starters. South Korea, with 50 million people, spent $17 Billion on paid tutoring last year. That’s $340 for every person in the country. That’s also on top of their regular taxes paying for public schools. I think the Koreans place a different value on education than we do. This could be because those 50 million people live in an area roughly the size of Indiana. It’s safe to say they’re not relying on domestic agriculture. They have to import much of everything they need, which means they need to be exporting as much as they can. Brainpower is their best hope for survival.
But let’s look at it another way. There are approximately 30 elementary school-age children attending my church, which is grouped geographically. There are approximately 435 members in that same area. So let’s assume a similar child-to-population ratio for my city/state. Now, let’s say we can somehow handle a class-size of 30 students with one rock-star teacher, and pay that teacher $1 million per year. Those 435 people need to pay $2298 each in taxes to pay that teacher’s salary. Mind you, those are total people, not households, and many of them are not paying taxes. So let’s say on average every three people amounts to one household/tax-paying unit, or 145 “TPU”. That comes to about $6900 per household to pay one teacher. That does not include the administrators, school operations, or any other part of the education budget. Nor does it include the rest of state and local taxes.
Who out there is willing to pay $7000 more a year in state taxes just for education? And let’s not even think about all the other public employees who would assume that they should be paid similarly. Even if we just pay teachers, police men, and firemen that salary we’re looking at $21,000 a year per household before any other taxes.
One possibility for ensuring teachers get paid like a sports star in America is to go the South Korean route and view teachers as contractors in free market system. Those who can’t draw their own following, or who teach subjects less in demand will not make very much. Those considered the best in teaching high-demand subjects can become like Kim Ki-hoon, making $4 million a year, and employing 30 people to run his teaching business (assuming he divides this equally between himself and his employees (however unlikely), that would still amount to $129,000 each per year).
Can you imagine the teachers unions ever supporting such a plan? The Department of Education? The American people? But why not? If there was a really good teacher who could turn out first-rate videos so that your child could learn all the math they would need to pass their yearly standardized tests in about 50 hours (an hour a week), for $4 an hour ($200 a year), wouldn’t that be better than sending them to school to learn the same thing?
Like it or not, this model is already gaining a foothold. My state offers an online option for high school, and other programs are available from other providers. Parents who want their kids to spend more time on other activities (ie. Olympic hopefuls, etc.) are taking advantage of such systems. I earned my MBA program through a partly-online program. Many universities have begun or are considering offering videos of some of their courses online.
Going such a direction would turn the education system in this country upside down. Top tier teachers can teach not just dozens but thousands of students (Kim Ki-hoon teaches over 150,000 students per year). This may be more difficult at younger grades, when students need a great deal of individual attention, but it’s not inconceivable that future high schools would have only a handful of Curriculum Counselors, whose job it is to tailor the curriculum for each student, while the students spend their days watching prescribed course videos and doing assignments in individual cubicles. Perhaps as much as 90% of the teacher pool could be eliminated in lieu of “rock-star teachers” who could teach every student in the country.
I don’t know if this would be good or not. But if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that America is not South Korea or Finland or any other of the countries that are getting more for their educational buck than we are. And so I don’t think the key to improving our educational system is simply to pay our teachers more. I don’t think paying someone what you wish they were worth is strong enough incentive for them to improve themselves to deserve what they are paid. We have to rethink and restructure our values as a nation if we’re going to improve our schools.
In lieu of that, parents who do want their children to excel in life will find a way around a system that doesn’t give them what they need. Just like South Korea. We may very well get our $4 million-dollar teachers here, too. But they won’t be in the public schools.