FACT CHECK: Obama claims foreign countries pay teachers as well as doctors

In trying to highlight U.S. education inadequacy, President Obama's statement is only half true

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President Barack Obama waves from the East Room of the White House.

 

Carolyn Kaster/AP file

President Obama falsely claimed teachers are paid "on par" with doctors in “most countries" with high test scores. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has data that allowed us to compare 16 member countries in all three categories: student test scores, teachers' pay and general practitioners' pay. None of the 16 countries paid teachers more than doctors, and 10 had higher test scores than the U.S. in one or more subject areas.

As part of that same claim, Obama also said teacher pay is "on par" with engineers, and that may be so. The White House cited research by Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond to support Obama's claim about doctors and engineers. Darling-Hammond testified before Congress that many high-performing countries make substantial investments in teachers and teacher training — including offering salaries that are "competitive with other professions, such as engineering." She also said "beginning teachers make more than beginning doctors" in Singapore, but that was her only reference to doctors' pay.

The president — during his bus tour through the Midwest — talked about education at a town hall event in Decorah, Iowa.

Obama, Aug. 15: "And in most countries that are doing well right now educationally, their teachers are revered. They get paid on par with doctors and engineers, because there is an understanding that this is a critical profession for the future of the nation."

That piqued our interest: What countries pay teachers better than doctors? We first went to the OECD, an international organization that says it is dedicated to global development. The OECD, which consists of 34 member countries, maintains data on a variety of topics — including education and health care. We looked at three OECD data sets and found comparative data on 16 member countries for these categories:

  • Reading, math and science test scores for 2007. This information comes from a 2009 education report based on OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment tests, which are given every three years to 15-year-old students.
  • Average salaries of general practitioners, from 1975 to 2010. The salaries are in U.S. dollars and adjusted for purchase power parity. (See "Remuneration of health professional" under "Health Care Resources.")
  • Average salaries of public school teachers with 15 years experience, as of 2007. The salaries are in U.S. dollars and adjusted for purchase power parity.

The average teacher pay in primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools was lower than general practitioner pay in all 16 member countries. That included Finland, New Zealand, Netherlands, Estonia — four countries that had test scores "significantly above the OECD average" in math, science and overall reading. (That was true, too, of Australia, based on OECD and government data. OECD data showed that Australia students scored significantly above the OECD average in all three subjects and paid teachers less than $45,000. There are no OECD data on general practitioners' pay, but a government-funded website said “the average annual income for a full time Australian GP is up to $200,000 or more,” which currently converts into $207,000 in U.S. dollars.)

In addition, OECD data show students in seven other countries — Iceland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Slovenia and Luxembourg — all performed better than U.S. students in one or more subject area. Those countries, too, pay doctors better than teachers. (Of the 31 member countries and six partner countries in OECD's teacher salary database, Luxembourg paid teachers the highest: $89,864 for upper secondary school teachers after 15 years of experience. But that was still below the $108,793 paid to general practitioners in 2006 in  Luxembourg, which has a popular universal health care system.)

Students in Mexico, Chile, Turkey, Israel and Spain scored lower than U.S. students in all three subject areas. And they, too, paid doctors better than teachers.

We asked the White House for data that would support the president's claim, and we were referred to the work of Stanford's Darling-Hammond, a top education adviser to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Specifically, the White House cited a study in which Darling-Hammond said Korea pays teachers somewhere between doctors and engineers. Korea is an OECD member country and its students scored "significantly above" the OECD average on the PISA tests. Upper secondary education teachers with more than 15 years of experience were paid $54,798 in 2007 — about $11,000 more than the U.S. But there are no OECD statistics on doctor salaries in Korea, so we could not independently determine if teachers are paid "on par" with doctors.

The White House also referred to testimony Darling-Hammond gave before a House education committee in 2007. In her testimony, she listed 10 countries that made "substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades," including "salaries which are competitive with other professions, such as engineering."

Darling-Hammond did not mention doctors — except to say that "beginning teachers make more than beginning doctors" in Singapore, which she visited as part of her research. Of the nine other high-performing countries, we found that six of them pay doctors better than teachers: Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. OECD does not have data on doctors' salaries for the remaining three: Norway, Japan and Taiwan.

The president would have been safe to say, based on Darling-Hammond's testimony, that countries with high-performing education systems invest heavily in mentoring, teacher training and continuing education. And some even offer salaries that are competitive with other professions, including engineering. But he cannot say that "most countries" that perform well on standardized testing pay teachers "on par with doctors."

– Eugene Kiely

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