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.”

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

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

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.