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Teachers do not think their compensation is fair, and throughout North America we are seeing the results of that conclusion. In Ontario, public high schools were recently shut down for a day (with another job action slated for Wednesday) as teachers tussle with the province, and B.C. teachers could be headed to the picket lines as well. In both provinces, there are many issues to be resolved, including class sizes and the use of online courses. Unsurprisingly though, compensation and salaries are red-letter issues in both provinces as they are for teachers across North America.

Like everyone else, teachers want fair compensation but fairness seems to play little or no role in determining who earns what in North America. How could it, when the income of a researcher looking for a cure for cancer is only a pittance of that of a minor Kardashian? For better or worse, the market decides incomes and and our earnings reflect supply and demand, and by extension effort, education, choices, risk and luck. If you are a public servant though, those earnings also reflect public finances and policy, which can seem unfair in itself.

To get some idea as to whether Canadian teachers are fairly compensated, it is useful to look at the statistics put out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which each year publishes a summary of education indicators for the 36 developed countries that it monitors. Adjusting for differences between countries (using the “purchasing-power parity method” to correct as best as possible for differences in what you can buy in each country) and putting things into U.S. dollar terms, the OECD found Canada ranks behind only Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in terms of statutory salaries paid to high school teachers with 15 years of experience.

More interesting is the OECD’s finding that Canadian teachers are better compensated than are other workers with postsecondary educations. That is, the OECD looked at the statutory salaries of teachers with 15 years of experience and compared them with all workers who went to university, then looked at the statutory salaries of teachers as a percentage of the earnings of that second group. Across the OECD, that ratio is 99 for lower-level high-school teachers and 1.04 for upper-level high-school teachers, which is to say that teaching pays about the same as other careers that might have been pursued by university graduates. In Canada, however, the ratio is 1.17 for teachers at both the primary and lower- and upper-level high-school levels. In the United States, the figures are 0.66 for primary teachers, 0.79 for lower-level high-school teachers and 0.75 for upper-level ones. None of this is to say that teachers are paid fairly or unfairly, but merely that as measured by teacher salaries, Canada apparently puts a higher priority on education than do many other countries, which can only be a good thing.

Of course, comparing teaching to any other profession is a wildly controversial thing to do. Teachers would argue that they have unique challenges, including dealing with noisy kids, annoying parents and mind-numbing bureaucracies. These days, when there is also the chance of violence in schools, there is a degree of risk that goes with the job that may not have been there in years past. All of these things, teachers could argue, are extra considerations when it comes to compensation. Then again, what is not well reflected in either teacher arguments or the OECD figures is that teaching gives a degree of job security, benefits and pensions that are very much not the norm in North America these days. Although teachers tend to be uniformly covered by pension plans, according to Statistics Canada, as of 2017 only 23 per cent of private-sector workers in Canada were part of any kind of registered pension plan and only 9.5 per cent were covered by defined-benefit plans.

What teachers and other workers have in common is that the lifestyle provided by their salaries is not the lifestyle that would have been the norm in years past, particularly for those who live in major centres. In the United States, there are instances where cash-strapped states have pushed teachers out of the middle class, forcing them to take retail or service jobs on the weekend to make ends meet. That is clearly wrong on many levels and is a path that Canada should avoid at all costs. When it comes to deciding what is “fair,” however, the calculation is clearly a much more complicated one and a much more difficult one to make.

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