According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2021, the average public school teacher salary was $65,000. That’s significantly less than the average salary for other professionals with the same levels of education. There are many reasons for this, but many of the reasons commonly cited are untrue.
In this blog post, the second in the Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series, Gretchen Weber, Senior Managing Director at WestEd, and Ellen Sherratt, Teacher Salary Project Board President, address some of the myths around teachers’ compensation.
Myth 1: Teachers don’t work full time and they get summers off, so they should be paid less than similarly situated professionals.
Gretchen Weber (GW): Some data points to typical teachers working about 54 hours a week, and one in 10 work more than 65 hours. If you take the amount of work teachers do during the school year and equalize it out across a calendar year, they work far more hours than just 40 in a week but don’t get paid for doing that. We often hear a follow up, “What about other professionals who also work more than 40 hours a week? That’s just what being a professional entails.” I’ll point you back to the salary discrepancy, to begin with. So, for teachers, it can feel almost like working a full-time job for part-time pay.
Ellen Sherrat (ES): I’d add a couple of things to that. One is, that as a nation, we’re really trying to recruit and retain more teachers of color right now to better reflect the student population. Gretchen, you noted that teachers work 54 hours a week on average during the school year. That number is 63 hours on average for Black teachers and most likely reflects the fact that teachers of color are in schools that have more challenging conditions and fewer resources to help address them.
Along those lines, the conditions under which teachers are working are incredibly intense. In the book, Teachers Have it Easy, Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers, and Dan Moulthrop put it best when they said a teacher’s hour is not comparable to, for example, an architect’s hour. Teachers are often so busy keeping 40 students at a time safe and attended to, not to mention engaged and learning, that they can go six hours at a stretch without a moment even to go to the bathroom.
They also note that most occupations allow workers to control their own time at work—to drift off in thought, to surf the web, to get coffee anytime they wish. That’s not so with teaching—a profession that holds its members legally responsible for the well-being of a room full of children for up to seven hours at a time. The intensity of teaching is so great that teachers are the most burnt-out working group according to the 2022 Gallup Poll. Fifty-three percent of K–12 teachers report that they’re always or almost always burned out at work. That far outpaces other professional groups.
GW: I want to add that we can’t escape talking about the last three years. The pandemic certainly exacerbated all of what you just described—the intensity of the conditions, the burnout, the larger numbers of hours Black teachers put in, teachers making up for the under-resourcing of schools.
A recent study coming out of the pandemic found that teachers were 40 percent more likely to report anxiety symptoms than even healthcare workers. Teachers had more anxiety because of the things they were dealing with during that time, on top of their regular tremendous workload.
I also want to comment on the summer argument. Most school years aren’t nine months anymore. Most school years either begin after Labor Day and go through the end of June or run from the end of May until early- to mid-August. A “summer” is more like two months, and in that two-month period teachers are often fulfilling professional development or other licensure requirements. Some teachers have coursework during that time because they’re pursuing advanced degrees. They’re preparing new curricula, serving on district committees . . . all those types of activities tend to get crammed into these two months of the summer, often for no additional pay.
Myth 2: Education budgets are tight, and we can’t afford to pay teachers more.
ES: The fact that the top-performing school systems do manage to afford to increase teacher pay is proof that it can be affordable if we choose to prioritize and do it. Significantly increasing teacher salaries seems an expensive proposition but it’s also expensive to continue on the road that we’re on now. We currently spend $1.3 billion annually on remedial college coursework because students were underprepared. Either because they had no teachers with adequate mastery of some subjects (because in some places we’re relying on long-term substitutes or teachers who didn’t even have access to certain coursework), or because we’re relying on underqualified teachers because of teacher shortages caused by very low salaries.
In 1969, two-thirds of the public school budget went toward staffing costs and teacher salaries. If the same proportion of school funding went towards teacher salaries, today teachers would be paid an average of $140,000 a year, instead of an average of $65,000.
GW: Also, several states, including Delaware, Maryland, and New Mexico, have either passed or proposed legislation increasing starting salaries for teachers to $60,000. Since January 2021, 25 states have enacted or proposed legislation to increase teacher compensation; though for some, it is a very minor increase or more focused on specific roles. And Congress is considering legislation that would raise the minimum teacher salary nationwide to $60,000. How do you afford not to do this when you know that a highly effective teacher in the classroom is the number one school-based factor in student learning? And student learning is one of the major goals of school. Also, we know that low salaries make it really hard to attract people into the profession and to retain others.
ES: And when people in positions of leadership and who have voice in the field just write it off as impossible and unaffordable that is exactly what makes it so.
GW: We’re at a point where teacher shortages are really hitting a crisis level. It’s a combination of a lot of things including not enough people entering the profession and preparation program enrollments dropping, which has been happening for about a decade.
ES: It’s dropped by a third over the last decade.
GW: Right, so now we’re trying to fill openings long-term and using subs and provisionally credentialed or licensed certified teachers and leaving vacancies unfilled. In some places, the shortage of teachers is so acute students are expected to learn without one. How do you effectively educate your students to make them prepared for post-high school experiences including college in this environment?
ES: What message does it send to children about the value of them and the value of their education?
Myth 3: It’s not that difficult to be a teacher. Anyone can do it.
GW: Let’s start with the fact that to be a teacher of record, you have to be able to demonstrate the skills and knowledge for effective classroom practice. While the coursework, field experience, and other requirements vary by state, the one constant is you need a license. To get it, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, and acquiring your state license often requires one or two exams and/or portfolio evaluation and demonstrating subject matter content knowledge about the things you will teach. Then you have to know how to teach, so pedagogical content knowledge is required to be able to do things like predict common mistakes students will make in their learning or manage your classroom in a way that promotes learning. Then, often the third part of the license is a classroom performance assessment, so we know that you can actually work with students. Renewing that license involves professional development and sometimes teachers are required to make advancements in licensure. This is similar to other professions which also require a state license to practice—therapists, accountants, engineers, architects, nurses, lawyers for example.
About a decade ago, states were strengthening entry requirements to the field to ensure high-quality educators, but over the last couple of years, about a dozen or so states have been amending or are considering amending their teacher certification rules for licensure. Some are changing criteria for it, others are expanding the qualifying score on state licensing tests, some are dropping state licenses altogether. I would argue that lowering the bar for what it means to be a highly effective teacher at the same time we have many students who are several grade levels behind in instruction because of the pandemic doesn’t add up. There’s a risk, then, of having less qualified, less experienced, less practiced teachers entering the profession based on the licensure requirements who are teaching students with greater needs.
ES: Because of the learning loss and mental health crisis due to the pandemic, we need teachers who do more than meet those state requirements (requirements which you mentioned are falling) but who are incredible mentors and fully dedicated and available to their students. We need people who have tremendous patience, passion for helping people, the ability to think out-of-the-box, conscientiousness, compassion, flexibility, a sense of humor, strong organizational skills. If you’re going to engage students in the way that they really need right now to be on a path to success we need to pay teachers enough so that they can be happy and well themselves, and not have to work second jobs that distract them from being there for their students.
Here’s a passage from Teachers Have It Easy that I think speaks so well to this issue: “A teacher is also a moral force. The expression ‘pillar of the community’ has no more apt application. It’s no easy task. . . . Few other professions require their members to act with courtesy, with ethical precision, with honor and patience all at all times, inside school or out. Because teachers are role models, there is no margin for error in their personal and public behavior. The teacher must also inspire. The best teachers instill in their students a desire to do great things, to crave learning, to learn to achieve. A teacher, therefore, must be a forward-looking and likely happy individual who is prepared to keep offering an optimistic future vision so students can keep working towards that future vision.” I think that is just so brilliant. What we need right now is teachers who are well compensated, happy, prepared, supported people available for their students. And that is what students need at all times, but especially right now to get past this crisis of learning loss and mental health.
GW: I’ll go a little deeper from there and talk about the complexity of what teaching and learning require. Ellen, you spoke so beautifully about the attributes of the people. I think it’s important that we think about this notion of a profession. I want to articulate the things that make a profession and then we can talk about how that applies to teaching because people often say, “Oh, you just get up and go to school and stand there and tell the kids some information, read from the book, follow the plan in the textbook. Anybody can do that as long as you’re a literate adult.”
This is one of my favorite quotes, “thinking that you can be a teacher because you went to school is like saying you could direct a blockbuster film because you went to watch ‘Star Wars.’”
Teaching is a profession. And any profession has four distinct elements. First is a clear and distinct domain of expertise. Secondly, professionals must have the ability to diagnose or assess a problem within this domain of expertise. They must be able to reason and make inferences about the problem. Finally, by using specialized knowledge and professional judgments they must be able to solve or treat the problem and take action on the student’s behalf.
Shouldn’t we be paying teachers as the professionals they are?
Myth 4: Teachers get excellent benefits, especially retirement benefits, so salaries don’t need to be increased.
ES: Bellwether put out a report that showed only half of teachers receive any of their pension benefits at all because you have to stay in your state school system for many, many years to reap those benefits. Only 20 percent of teachers are receiving their full pension benefits. Also, it doesn’t outweigh the low salaries—you have teachers in 43 states who are eligible for at least one type of government assistance benefits and regardless of your benefits, it’s not good to be on food stamps.
I would say that Dick Starz, the MIT economist, put it best in a Brookings article where he said that the bottom line on deciding whether teacher compensation is adequate is whether you’re paying enough to get a sufficiently large supply of sufficiently good employees. And if you feel like you have enough of the teachers that you need in terms of diversity and talent and everything else, then great, the compensation package is sufficient. If you don’t, and I think almost everyone would agree right now we don’t, then you’re not.
It’s just a distraction to talk about the benefits. We need to do market research with teachers on the mix of salary and benefits that would be attractive to them and educate teachers and prospective teachers about the benefits that are available. But right now, the package just isn’t compelling and that’s why we have 62 percent of parents saying that they don’t want their children to become teachers—the highest percent ever. The number one reason they say for not wanting their kids to be teachers is low salaries.
GW: What they really mean is they don’t want their kids living in their basement.
ES: Yes. Adults move in with their parents because they can’t afford rent. The Teacher Salary Project survey in the summer of 2022 found in our unpublished open-response data that teachers in their 40s still have roommates or are still living with their parents.
GW: On the pay penalty—we know there’s about a 19 percent wage gap between teachers and other professionals.
ES: It’s actually up to 23.5 percent now.
GW: That makes our point even better. And when you add benefits to the equation, the compensation penalty was 10 percent in 2019 and it’s 14.2 percent. So, still a growing gap even with salary plus benefits factored in.
ES: And the gap between teaching and non-teaching careers for college-educated individuals was 2.7 percent in 1993 and now it’s 14.2 percent.
GW: So, as an example, registered nurses in the United States constitute the majority of the healthcare workforce and teachers—right—dominate the country’s education system. If you compare the two, last year, registered nurses on average in the U.S. earned $77,500 and nurse practitioners earned $111,000 on average. That’s compared to $65,000 for teachers. Only 9 percent of districts allow teachers—ever in their career, regardless of degree—to earn $100,000. Think about the ROI on earning advanced degrees if you’re planning to stay in teaching.
GW: The bottom line here really is the bottom line. Until we set aside these myths and commit to compensating teachers as we do similarly educated and situated professionals, we’re never going to solve the teacher shortage.
This is the second in a series of four blog posts on teacher compensation. These posts address issues raised during a Teacher Compensation Roundtable held in Washington, DC, in November 2022. The event brought together educators, researchers, policy experts, and other leaders to discuss addressing teacher shortages through innovations in teacher compensation. Read all four posts in Money Matters: Conversations About Teacher Compensation Series.