salary slump

As teachers across the country demand higher pay, here’s how much salaries have stalled — and why it matters for kids

It started in West Virginia. Now, Oklahoma teachers are on day two of a walkout that has closed schools across the state. Teachers in Kentucky staged in all-day protest at the state capitol. Arizona teachers are also planning a walkout.

Teachers in states across the country say they’re underpaid and their schools are underfunded. Some have already gotten results: Both West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers have won substantial raises.

And the protesters are making the case that they’re not just fighting for themselves but for their students and state.

“In the long run, we’re hurting Oklahoma when we don’t stand out here and do this,” said one teacher.

The renewed attention to teachers’ paychecks marks a departure from many of the prevailing debates about teacher pay. Those questions, like whether high ratings or student test scores should factor into teacher pay, often focused less on how much to pay teachers and more on how to pay them.

Now, those paychecks are in the spotlight. Here’s a quick guide to the numbers behind the walkouts and how salaries end up mattering for students, too.

Nationally, teacher salary has been stagnant for decades and has been falling behind that of other professionals.

The average American public school teacher earned $58,950 in the 2016–17 school year, according to data from state agencies compiled by the National Education Association and published by the federal government. Adjusting for inflation, that’s about $1,000 less than in 1989 and $3,000 less than in 2009.

Another way to examine teacher pay is to compare educators to similarly educated professionals. (It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, since people with similar levels of education may have varying skills.)

The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive, union-backed think tank, recently undertook such an analysis. In 1994, teachers’ weekly compensation, including benefits, was about equal to that of similarly educated professionals. But that’s no longer the case. By 2015, teachers nationally earned 11 percent less.

That may not be true for all teachers: High school teachers earned less than other similar workers, but elementary and middle school teachers made more, one study found.

Conservative critics also argue that these sorts of comparisons are flawed because they don’t fully account for teachers’ retirement benefits or tenure protections. They point out that teachers who leave for new jobs often take a pay cut.

Still, there’s no question that teacher salaries haven’t been going up. Why? More recently, in the wake of recession, states made steep budget cuts, and most haven’t fully recovered. Funding advocates argue that some states, including some of those facing teacher protests, just aren’t dedicating enough money to public schools.

Others say the issue is one of priorities, pointing to big increases in non-teaching staff, like aides, custodians, and counselors, and greater teacher retirement costs.

Thousands of Kentucky teachers rallied at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. on Monday, April 2, 2018. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)

There’s a lot of variation in how much teachers are paid, with particularly low pay in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

Teacher pay varies a lot, ranging from an average of about $42,000 a year in South Dakota to nearly $80,000 in New York.

Another report from the Education Law Center, which supports more school funding, compares early career teachers’ pay (not including benefits) to pay for similarly educated young professionals in the each state. In almost all cases, teachers are paid less.

Teachers in Arizona made 73 percent of similar non-teachers, among the worst in the country. Teachers in Oklahoma (78 percent) and West Virginia (79 percent) didn’t have it much better. Kentucky teachers actually came out ahead of teachers elsewhere, but still lagged behind non-teachers.

Higher pay means teachers are more likely to stay in the classroom. That’s linked to increased student achievement.

The policy argument for paying teachers more is straightforward: you’ll attract and keep better teachers. That’s largely backed up by research.

Several studies have shown that even relatively modest increases in teacher pay can decrease teacher turnover. One recent paper found that a $1,200 bonus in Florida decreased teacher quitting rates from about 17 percent to 11 percent. Bonuses of a few thousand dollars in Denver, North Carolina, and Tennessee had similar effects. One San Francisco study found that an incentive pay program didn’t increase teacher retention, but did seem to attract more effective teachers.

An extensive study in Texas using over a decade and a half of data found that a 10 percent salary increase led to a 1.6 percentage point drop in teacher turnover; the effect was largest among less experienced teachers.

Will students benefit directly from increased teacher pay and the decreased turnover as a result? Probably, though there’s not a great deal of recent research on this.

On average, students seem to benefit when there’s less teacher churn, and that’s particularly because turnover is greatest in high-poverty schools. The Texas study estimates that higher pay means more experienced and effective teachers are more likely to stick around, and that students do slightly better on tests as a result.

Other research has found that when school have more money to spend, including on teachers, students graduate high school at higher rates and earn more money as adults.

“These results suggest that the positive effects are driven, at least in part, by some combination of reductions in class size, having more adults per student in schools, increases in instructional time, and increases in teacher salaries that may help to attract and retain a more highly qualified teaching workforce,” the researchers wrote.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Oklahoma, rather than South Dakota, had the lowest average teacher salary in 2016-17. The story has also been updated to clarify the source of teacher salary data published by the federal government.

How I Teach

Why Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year uses penguins to help her first-graders grow as readers, writers, and thinkers

PHOTO: Alan Poizner
Melissa Miller reads aloud to her first-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Melissa Miller loves to read, adores teaching first-graders, and has a fascination for penguins.

It’s no surprise, then, that an annual highlight for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is teaching a science unit she created to get her first-graders reading and learning about the unique aquatic bird.

“We have so much we can learn about and from penguins,” Miller explains. “They work together, share responsibilities, look out for each other, love each other for life, and persevere in the most challenging situations.”

The unit begins during the wintertime with reading that lets students learn penguin facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then in the spring, they do book reports on penguins — projects that “celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer.”

“The unit encompasses everything I believe about teaching and learning,” Miller says. “It puts me in the position as facilitator of learning. My desire is to fuel students’ passion for learning by teaching with passion.”

Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller works at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, south of Nashville. Her enthusiasm as a teacher and expertise in curriculum and technology are among the reasons that she was chosen Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. 

Miller talked with Chalkbeat about why teaching students to read is her greatest passion, how she partners with parents to build classroom rapport, and the upside of behavioral challenges. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I wanted to be a teacher beginning as a kindergarten student in Columbia, Tennessee. My teacher, Ms. Portia Lea, was so loving and encouraging, she just won me over. I have taken away a valuable lesson from each teacher that I had in my journey toward my career. I feel like they are part of who I am. I just want to give to my students the same experience of love, encouragement, hope, belief, and perseverance that I received.

Why elementary-age students? What’s the best thing about that age group?

PHOTO: TN.gov
“My great passion is teaching kids to read!” says Miller.

My great passion is teaching kids to read! Reading opens the doors to their world and windows of possibilities for their future. I have taught kindergarten through fourth grade, but find myself best at home in first grade giving that strong foundation in reading. My first-graders are sponges for knowledge. Each child is as unique as a snowflake. They are just as loving and encouraging for me as I am for them. 

How do you get to know your students?

At the beginning of the school year, I send home a questionnaire for parents to share their insights. During the first few weeks of school, we do community-building activities each day. I need to know what motivates each student, their favorite books, their family members, their pets, and what they want to be when they grow up. While reading books such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Important Book,” “Chrysanthemum,” “I Like Me,” and “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” we learn many things about each other and truly become a family.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lessons to teach are within the Penguin Research Unit that I created. Students research what penguins eat, where they live, their characteristics, dangers, and adaptations. In the process, the students learn that their brains are like folders and that they need to organize information in order to remember it. They take in new facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then they write a book report complete with table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, author information, and a glossary. Those reports are read and edited by a local author before we publish them for others in the school to read. Because this happens in the spring, it’s a time to celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer. The unit ties together fiction, nonfiction, writing, math, and science standards. Even at 6 and 7 years old, the kids are learning to research their wonderings and making connections on how to contribute to the world around them.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

A funny necessity is my Mr. Sketch Scented Markers in all sizes to create anchor charts. A serious necessity is the rich literature that I have collected through the years. I don’t collect things, I collect books. A fun date night for my husband and me is going to the bookstore for coffee and more books.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One of the quick lessons I learned came when I started out by communicating with parents once per week about their child’s behavior. I quickly found out that weekly would not work. Parents need daily communication. They cannot address problems if I don’t communicate them right away. The best communication plan is the one that gets the most collaboration. It strengthens the partnership between teacher and parents.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“If you look cute and smell pretty, your kids will love you.” That came in the first week of my first year. Not only was this funny advice, it keeps things fun!

You serve as a team leader and mentor at your school. What advice do you give to new teachers?

Love your students! Each one is an individual with their own gifts and challenges. Get to know what motivates them, because each one is unique. Listen, really listen, to your students. Know the names of their siblings, favorite sports, favorite authors, and pets. Greet each student with a smile and a personal message. And make each day count!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Anytime I contact a parent about behavioral challenges, it changes my perspective and approach. This is where empathy and compassion come together. Understanding the child deep down gives me a snapshot into what motivates them and what does not. It guides me in making home-school connections ultimately to benefit both places. I need to understand where they are coming from in order to help them see the vision for where they can go.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I am constantly ON. My mind is on my kids at school as everything I do and everywhere I go ties back to teaching and learning experiences that I can share.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Love Does” by Bob Goff

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share with other educators?

“Positive people on positive teams produce positive results and the essential ingredient is positive energy.” —Jon Gordon from “The Energy Bus”

Future of Teaching

Tentative contract includes big raises for IPS teachers

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teachers would receive significant raises under a tentative new contract with IPS.

A month after voters approved a vast funding increase for Indianapolis Public Schools, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee’s administration and the district teachers union have reached a tentative deal for a new contract that would boost teacher pay by an average of 6.3 percent.

The agreement was ratified by union members Wednesday, according to a statement from teachers union president Ronald Swann. It must be approved by the Indianapolis Public Schools board, which is likely to consider the contract next week, before it is final.

Swann did not provide details of the agreement, but it was outlined in union presentations to teachers on Wednesday ahead of the ratification vote. The deal would cover the 2018-19 school year, and teachers would receive retroactive pay back to July 2018. The prior contract ended in June.

Raising teacher pay was a key part of the sales pitch district leaders used to win support for a referendum to raise $220 million over eight years from taxpayers for operating expenses. The referendum passed with wide support from voters last month, and although the district will not get that money until next year, the administration can now bank on an influx of cash in June 2019. Teachers could receive another raise next year, once the money from the referendum begins flowing.

The proposed deal would bring pay raises for new and experienced teachers. First year teachers in the district would see their salaries jump to $42,587, about $2,600 above the current base salary, according to the presentation to teachers. Returning teachers would move up the pay scale, with most receiving raises of about $2,600.

The deal also brings a reward for teachers who are at the top of the current scale. The top of the scale would rise to $74,920 by adding several stops above the current maximum of $59,400. That means teachers who are currently at the top of the scale would be able to move up and continue getting raises.

Many longtime teachers in the district also earn additional pay for advanced education, but teachers who joined the district more recently are not eligible for that extra money.

Teachers who received evaluations of ineffective or needs improvement in 2017-18 are not eligible for raises.

The new contract is the second time in recent years that teachers have won substantial raises in Indianapolis Public Schools. After four years of painful pay freezes, Ferebee negotiated a contract in 2015 that included a large pay increase. Teacher pay is especially important for the district because it is competing with several surrounding communities to staff schools.

Health care costs would go up this year, a policy shift that was advocated by the Indy Chamber, which urged the district to reduce health insurance spending as part of a plan to shift more money to teacher salaries.

The contract includes a provision that was piloted last year allowing the district to place newly hired teachers at anywhere on the salary schedule. It’s designed to allow the district to pay more for especially hard-to-fill positions.

Teachers at some troubled schools, known as the transformation zone, would also be eligible for extra pay on top of their regular salaries at the discretion of the administration. That money would come from state grants specifically targeted at transformation zone schools.

The idea of allowing superintendents to pay some teachers in their districts more than others is controversial.