on the money

The salary slide: as other professionals see growth, teachers’ pay stagnates, new report finds

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Newly minted college graduates considering the teaching profession probably don’t expect lucrative salaries. But they might not realize how big a financial hit they face: Teachers now earn about 20 percent less than other college-educated workers, according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed think tank.

This teacher pay penalty has persisted and even grown modestly in recent years, the latest numbers show. It may be one reason why a majority of parents for the first time say they don’t want their children to become teachers, according to a recent poll. Low pay is also one of the chief drivers of recent teacher protests across the country.

The analysis bolsters those teachers’ arguments, though it shows that some of the salary gap is made up for by better healthcare and retirement benefits. But even accounting for benefits, there remains a 11 percent pay penalty for teachers.

“As we have shown in our more than a decade and a half of work on the topic, relative teacher pay has been eroding for over a half a century,” write EPI researchers Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel.

They find that, compared to other college graduates, teachers are paid nearly $350 less per week in salary, or 23 percent less. They also use a more sophisticated approach that controls for demographics, including age and level of education. This shows similar results: an 18.7 percent pay gap.

Accounting for benefits, the gap is slightly larger than it was in 2015 and substantially larger than in 1994, when teachers were paid on par with similarly educated professionals.

“The wage penalty [is] on its own critically important as it is only earnings that families can put toward making ends meet,” the EPI authors note. “It’s only earnings that can pay for expenses such as rent, food, and student loan payments.”

Arizona’s teachers face the largest salary penalty, at 36 percent. That state has also been roiled by waves of teacher activism, including an effort to put a pay hike on the November ballot. (That was recently nixed by the State Supreme Court over a wording issue.) North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado are next on the list.

The EPI study is just the latest of many attempts by researchers to determine whether teachers are really “underpaid.” That’s challenging to determine about any job, because compensation depends on a complicated web of factors like working conditions and job security, which can be hard to measure.

Critics of the EPI approach have argued that it doesn’t account for teachers’ greater job security thanks to tenure or fully capture the value of state-backed pensions. (In recent years, though, tenure and job protections have been weakened in a number of states, and other research suggests this deterred college graduates from entering teaching. A handful of states have also moved away from traditional pensions.)

Mishel of EPI counters that other factors, like not being able to take vacation when you want and the rigors of working with children, may make teaching less attractive. “You could point to a lot of factors that would make teachers need to get paid more,” he said.

The EPI report doesn’t distinguish between different groups of teachers, like those in high-poverty schools, who are much more likely to leave their schools than those in more affluent schools.

A separate study using a different approach finds that while high school teachers are substantially underpaid relative to similar workers, elementary and middle school teachers actually earn more money than they would in other jobs.

“It’s a mistake to treat teachers and teacher pay as a generic phenomenon,” said Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington. “While it may be right that teacher pay is falling behind the pay levels of other professionals, the magnitudes really depend on what kind of teachers are being compared to what kinds of professionals.”

Another way to look at pay is to consider to what extent schools are experiencing teacher shortages. A 2017 report by the federal government showed that every state reported shortages in certain areas; some researchers argue that the real trouble is in states with particularly low pay and in areas like math, science, and special education.

Of course, the debate around teacher pay isn’t only focused on economic principles or debates about recruitment — it includes questions about basic fairness and economic justice.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a day off,” one Michigan teacher, who also works part time at a clothing store, told Vox. “I always had this understanding that I would never be rich as a teacher, but I never thought it would be this difficult to live on a teacher’s salary.” (Less than one in five teachers work a second job, though that’s higher than other workers.)

Another question is one of priorities: One school choice advocacy group points out that the number of teachers per student has risen between 1992 and 2015, as has the number of non-teaching staff in schools — even as teacher pay has flatlined.

What’s clear is that teachers’ salaries have been stagnant as other professionals’ wages have grown. Research suggests that pay affects who enters and who stays in teaching, which in turn affects student learning.

“The basic trend that teachers are losing ground relative to other college educated workers is pretty damning,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education economist at Northwest University. “It’s got to impact selection into the profession, and that’s the piece that worries me the most.”

First Person

I’m a fifth-year Chicago teacher, and the challenges aren’t letting up. Now what?

PHOTO: Getty

When I started as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I remember hearing that half of teachers in urban school districts leave them in their first five years. When I went through rough patches I would wonder, was I going to make it?

I did make it, completing my fifth year of teaching last spring. But I can’t help but feel like something still isn’t right.

I feel like this should be the time when I am starting to really develop my expertise, feel secure in my skills and abilities, and build the self-confidence that I am effective in my craft. Instead, I  feel lucky just to be surviving day to day and week to week.

I thought that by now I would be in a groove with planning and preparation. I thought that my Sundays might actually be relaxing. Instead, I find myself filled with the “Sunday scaries,” scrambling to get materials created, adjust lesson plans, and polish final drafts of IEPs. I never feel “caught up,” and can’t say I have ever known what that feels like.

Even though my class sizes are not the largest in the district, they are filled with students who — although so talented, resilient, and special — have such a wide variety of needs and deficits that I don’t feel I can adequately address given all of the constraints I face. There simply are not enough resources and time to do everything I need to do to give my students the best that they deserve. This weighs on me, leading to overwhelming feelings of guilt and helplessness that are often paralyzing.

In short, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted, and I know many of my fellow teachers are too.

I’ve been thinking about this reality more since I joined a number of colleagues at an educator mental health-focused event in October. We dug into our own struggles and and then worked on ways to manage our stress. We named our biggest day-to-day stressors and then explored different ways to practice self-care — such as journaling, meditation, or picking up an instrument — to balance out the feelings of high anxiety and pressure we feel at work. I left with a number of resources to seek out on my own as well as a sense of renewal. But the onus was on me to find solutions moving forward.

Now, Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up. And while I work on managing the stress of this job, it’s also on policymakers — including our next mayor — to address the stressors themselves.

Large class sizes, the limited time we are allotted to plan and prepare for the school day, insufficient paid time-off policies, and ever-tighter budgets we are asked to stretch to meet our students’ needs are all the result of policies that could be changed.

I can’t practice enough self-care to replace the structural changes needed to make our profession more sustainable.

But school leaders, the mayor, and state policymakers, could make a difference. More independent and collaboration time in teachers’ days would help give us time to chip away at expanding to-do lists. Real teacher-leader roles would give teachers power and voice in school decisions. Schools destigmatizing “mental health” days and organizing activities to help teachers de-stress would help, too.

Dissenters may point to the fact that in many other jobs you’re expected to manage your work-life balance and handle stress on your own. But teaching isn’t like every other job: the stakes are especially high, and we have less control of our time and are more isolated in our work. Students benefit from teachers with experience, and every time a capable teacher leaves Chicago’s schools because they were overwhelmed, students lose out.

For my part, I pledge to be aware of my mental health needs and plan to be intentional about my self-care this school year. I hope Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Teachers Union, and our city and state elected leaders will commit to helping me and my colleagues not only to survive, but to thrive in our jobs.

As mayoral candidates continue to flesh out their education plans, they need to acknowledge that our mental health and well-being is critical to our success as teacher. How are they planning to help us access resources like counseling services? Prioritizing how to best care for educators will help us continue to provide the best care possible for students.

Teachers are already doing exceptional work given the many constraints they face. Imagine what more we could do for our students if we were better equipped ourselves.

Dayna Heller is a special education teacher at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. She is an active member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher-led policy organization.

tick tock

Denver district, teachers union make some progress as contract deadline looms, but still far apart

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Denver teachers listen to an update on bargaining during the second to last day of negotiations before the ProComp contract expires.

Something unusual happened near the end of bargaining Thursday between the Denver teachers union and school administrators: The district offered a change to its proposal, and some teachers gathered in the audience snapped their fingers in approval.

The two sides are still far apart in terms of reaching an agreement on Denver Public Schools’ ProComp system, which offers teachers bonuses on top of their base salary for things like teaching in a high-poverty school or earning a strong evaluation. The deadline for a deal is Friday, with teachers set to vote on either strike or ratification Saturday and Tuesday. The district’s and the union’s proposals still reflect different ideas about how teachers should earn more compensation — and have very different price tags.

But Thursday’s session was a far cry from the intense frustration that marked Tuesday’s bargaining session. On that day, district officials departed the bargaining table to “process” after the union refused to make a counteroffer to the most recent district proposal. Teachers filled the room after school and waited in hot, cramped conditions for a response that never came.

Thursday’s session opened with tense verbal sparring, but by the afternoon, the union had made changes to its proposal that reduced the cost by an estimated $2.5 million. District officials said they would spend the night and early Friday morning analyzing the proposal and seeing where else they might be able to move.

The district did offer a small concession Thursday that some teachers seemed to appreciate: increasing tuition reimbursement 50 percent, to $6,000. Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova said research shows this type of incentive is a strong tool for recruiting and keeping teachers, especially teachers of color. The money for this will come from reducing the bonus that teachers get for teaching in a so-called “distinguished” school.

More often, Denver teachers have reacted with boos to offers that the district saw as significant steps toward the union position.

Beyond small steps like the tuition reimbursement, Cordova said she was “very open to considering” aspects of the union proposal, a sentiment that seemed to clear the way for more back-and-forth.

“The district has moved and DCTA was willing to change their proposal,” said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School who attended the bargaining session. “We both showed willingness to compromise, and that’s positive.”

Dana Berge, a member of the union bargaining team, said the district is “beginning to listen to us, but they are not listening to us in terms of the values in our proposal.”

Both proposals keep some bonuses, at much more modest levels, and put more money into base pay. And both proposals lay out a schedule for how Denver teachers can earn more money, both by “steps,” or number of years of service, and by “lanes,” or additional educational achievement.

The union proposal has more lanes and allows Denver teachers to start moving up by earning additional college credit or by taking the kind of professional development that teachers need to do anyway. Teachers take such training to maintain their teaching licenses — or because they see a need, for example, to learn more about helping students with trauma. The union’s counteroffer Thursday removed one of the lanes, bringing down the total cost.

The district’s first lane change comes with a master’s degree, completing 10 years of service, earning an advanced license, or earning national board certification.

Berge said the union proposal more closely mimics those in other districts and will keep “highly dedicated, highly trained, highly experienced teachers” in Denver and reduce the problem of losing more experienced teachers to better-off suburban districts while less experienced teachers concentrate in the highest-needs schools.

She argued that a more stable salary structure would do more to keep teachers in high-poverty schools than the bonuses given under the current system.

The union proposal will cost a lot more than the district proposal. Cordova said the district is in the process of identifying “deep, deep cuts” to administrative positions to redirect money to classrooms, but even those won’t provide all the money needed to close the gap between the two sides.

During the long period in which each side was working separately on its proposals, a group of religious and community leaders from the Industrial Areas Foundation arrived to offer support to teachers and then a direct message to Cordova. They criticized her for framing the disagreement as one about values.

“Please don’t dare insinuate that you care more about the children in hard-to-serve, high-poverty schools than we do,” said Susan Cooper, a retired teacher and member of the organization. “We value solidarity, not a divide and conquer approach. We value stability, which we don’t have because we can’t keep teachers in Denver.”

Billy Williams of the Denver chapter of the NAACP said parents and community members would support the teachers “if they are forced to strike.”

Cordova said it was never her intent to suggest one side held the moral high ground.

“We can have similar goals, similar values, and different ideas about how to get those done,” she said. “Good people can disagree and still care about our kids.”

The two sides expect to resume bargaining at 10 a.m. Friday.