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.”

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.


Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.