An analysis of teacher compensation in America
Educators are essential to America’s future, so why don’t we treat them as such?
In the United States, public education typically finds itself in the news for all the wrong reasons: American students testing poorly against its peers; stark inequities between schools based on neighbourhood; teachers — across an increasing number of states — constantly on the verge of striking.
Many of the issues in the US education system are systemic, which is a major reason why actual change, as is so often the case with policy in general, is far harder to come by than talked-about change. States may flip colours, administrators may get reshuffled, and new acts may bring forward some structural reform, but at the front-line, the insidious decline of K-12 education steadily continues.
Although the issues may be systemic, they are also interconnected in such a way that a marked improvement in one area could lead to a cascading of additional benefits elsewhere. So instead of focusing on complex, multi-faceted education reform — which just leads to endless bickering and minimal action — the conversation should be about centring efforts around the single area that could impact the most across the entire system. After all, you can get a paint job, buy top-of-the-line tires, and even put in a DJ-worthy sound system in your car, but you aren’t going to go anywhere with a broken engine.
And the broken engine of the US education system is a group of professionals who have been overlooked for a generation: teachers.
So any 2020 candidate who wants to effect change in education should first focus on the long-standing, well-documented issue of how (and how much) we compensate American teachers.
Fix the engine, fix the system.
No matter how you cut the numbers, teachers in America are, and have been, grossly underpaid when you compare them to other OECD countries. The numbers are already not great when looking at gross salary, but the neglect truly shines through when you compare what teachers make to what other university-educated professionals are making in the US (coupled with the fact that teachers have dealt with historically bad wage stagnation — earning less on average today than they did almost 30 years ago after accounting for inflation).
As the chart above shows, OECD data suggests that teachers earn about 68% of what the average university-grad makes in America. That’s almost a third less for the individuals who are tasked with teaching children skills that transcend the walls of the classroom, and who spend virtually as much waking time with these kids as their parents during the formative years of their lives.
But how did we get to where we are today? How did teachers become so underpaid?
Well, the story speaks to greater issues in our society that are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
This is a (wo)man’s world
Although teaching originated as a profession for men, the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century brought about a plethora of new business opportunities in the US; opportunities that were only really available to men. So while men were flocking to make an extra buck during this boom and the public school system really started to take hold, thousands of teaching jobs needed to be filled. Add in the rise in immigration at the time and the demand for teachers in America was through the roof.
Catharine Beecher, a major 19th century advocate for educational equality for women, pounced on this situation to make the case that women were, in fact, built to be better teachers than men. She went as far as to argue that teaching was an extension of mothering, leaving women more qualified to work with students and overall human development. Beecher also saw this as an opportunity for women to hold honourable, professional jobs; an unprecedented chance for female economic freedom and independence.
All things considered, this surge was a good thing, but despite the fact that they made up 63% of the country’s teachers by the late 1880s, women were still being suppressed within the sector. Men dominated the higher-paying high school jobs and any roles in administration, while women made up the majority of the workforce in the lower-wage primary and elementary schools.
By the early 20th century, female teachers started to rebel and unions began to emerge. They’d had enough of the low wages, lack of job security, and non-existent benefits, and eventually, their rebellion led to annual pay growth and even the rise of some women to high-ranking administrative jobs.
Now fast forward to the mid-20th century. Up until then, most women generally had three choices: be a mom, be a nurse, or be a teacher. But suddenly sectors that were historically reserved for men (i.e. medicine, law) opened up and women started exploring employment in new areas.
Despite women quickly expanding into these newly-unlocked professions, and more men actually becoming teachers (the number of male teachers almost tripled from 1960 to 1990), teaching’s reputation as a “feminine” job somehow only cemented further.
Many would argue that this branding has been a major contributor to the relative ease in which American society has been able to get away with underpaying teachers, while progressively dehumanizing the teaching profession as a whole. This assertion definitely has merit, as evidence has shown that the more women working in a given profession, the lower the pay is likely to drop.
But if being a women-dominant field is the only reason why American teachers make so little compared to other similarly-educated professionals, why are teachers in other countries being more fairly compensated? 75% of Canadian teachers are women, 72% of Finnish teachers are women, and 70% of German teachers are women, but these professionals are earning what you’d expect someone with that level of education to make (and in Canada’s case, even more).
So although it is likely a reason, the cultural minimization of “women’s work” can’t be the only reason, as the US isn’t the only country with a gender pay gap. What is quite clear, however, is that the US is guilty of disproportionately devaluing the work of a teacher, agnostic of gender (albeit, while still paying women teachers a bit less).
Put your money where your mouth is
A 2018 report looking at the relative status of teachers across 35 different countries found that the United States was middle of the pack and tended to liken them to librarians (while China was ranked first, where the status of a teacher is equal to or even greater than a physician). Middle of the pack can be seen as average — or “not bad” — but the underappreciation of teachers goes beyond just how the public perceives the profession; it is also how public education is viewed (and funded) as a whole.
Once at 58% in 1973, the public’s approval rating of public schools fell to an all-time low of 29% in 2012. And although the 1983 report that is credited with partially sparking this downfall very clearly states that we must “avoid the unproductive tendency…to search for scapegoats among the victims, such as the beleaguered teachers”, teachers have been caught in the crosshairs of this misinterpreted crisis ever since. As a teacher, it would be hard to look at approval numbers (and trends) like that and not feel as if your hard work is being dismissed.
From the government perspective, the supportive rhetoric has always been there, but the money has not. From 2010–2014, an OECD report found that US spending on K-12 education declined even while the economy boomed and the student population grew, leading to a 4% decrease in spending per student. Over that same period, education spending rose 5% per student, on average, across the 35 countries in the OECD. While America’s peers were doubling down on their futures by investing in education, the US was stripping its education system, and teachers, to the bone.
It would be one thing if cuts were accompanied by thoughtful changes to how the money was allocated, but they weren’t. Andreas Schelicher, who heads the OECD directorate that issued the aforementioned report, put it best when commenting on school districts in Oklahoma that moved to a four-day school week:
If you simply cut spending within your existing spending choices, you will end up with less for less.
Low pay, low approval, and steady cuts at all levels of government; so far I’ve painted a pretty grim picture of what being a teacher in America is like, and that they are helpless cogs in this degenerating machine — but are some of these things maybe justified?
Well, the simple answer is definitely no; there is no justification for cutting education spending in a flourishing economy and paying someone way less than what they deserve.
But the more nuanced take is that the progressive worsening of these conditions may be slowly perpetuating a vicious cycle of fewer high-quality candidates entering (and staying in) the teaching profession that is just starting to reveal itself now.
“Those that can’t do, teach”
America has more teachers now than ever before. You may think this is a good thing, but the “ballooning” of the teaching force is a puzzling topic within academic circles, because the difference between recent patterns and previous peaks is that presently, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between the number of teachers and students in the country.
Between 1987 and 2016, the number of students in America grew 24%. The number of teachers grew 65%. There are, however, some logical explanations for this discrepancy.
A major push in American public education has been on class size reduction, and the smaller your classes, the more educators you’ll need to teach them. Elementary school classroom sizes decreased by 20% between the late 1980s and 2016 (from 26.2 to 21.1 students), leading to a large increase in the number of general elementary school teachers. Over the same period, a heightened focus on subject-specific teachers (i.e. math, science, music) led to significant growth in the number of specialized educators as well.
The data would suggest that this growth is justified based on public demand for lower student-to-staff ratios and programmatic expansion, but that still doesn’t entirely explain the ballooning effect. There is also little actual evidence to suggest that these hiring decisions and hyper-focus on staffing ratios have led to any meaningful improvements in the education system. Test scores have stayed relatively flat (see table below) and spending — despite the recent cuts — is still amongst the highest in the world.
Perhaps most relevant (and troubling) is that teachers are burning out at unprecedented rates. Around 8% of teachers leave the profession every year (compared to 3–4% in well-regarded systems like Canada, Finland, and Singapore) and at least 17% leave the profession within the first five years.
So despite the total (and arguably excessive) volume of teachers, this retention issue still leaves many schools — particularly high-poverty, high-minority schools in urban or rural areas — in a constant battle to fill vacancies and establish a quality pipeline.
And America appears to be losing this battle.
We keep hiring more teachers into a broken system like a country deploying more soldiers into an unwinnable war, and this practice is leaving its mark on the experience and quality of the teaching workforce.
“This year in Oklahoma, a record number of teachers were given emergency teaching certifications, despite no traditional training. In Arizona, school districts began recruiting overseas to fill their shortfall. Last year, U.S. public schools hired 2,800 foreign teachers on special visas, up from 1,500 in 2012, according to federal data.” — Katie Reilly, TIME (2018)
In one of the most comprehensive reviews of the teaching workforce ever done, a group of UPenn researchers did a deep-dive on several trends and the numbers do indeed point to a much “greener” set of educators.
On its own, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a lot of new teachers. Fresh faces, new ideas, and youthful energy can be a positive thing for any classroom or school. But when these teachers don’t have strong veterans to learn from and are increasingly thrown into these high-poverty schools, they are undoubtedly being set up to fail. And upon their eventual (and almost inevitable) departure from the teaching profession, they will be replaced by another underprepared graduate who will suffer a similar fate, furthering the concentration of inexperienced educators in the schools that are in desperate need of the opposite.
In addition to a greener workforce, teaching is also becoming a less attractive pursuit for the country’s college students, and, just as importantly, the country’s top college students.
The relative percentage of students majoring in education dropped by more than 60% from 1975 to 2015; no major saw a larger decrease over that time span. The dropoff is even more drastic amongst women, with the share of female college students majoring in education shrinking from 32% to 11%.
However, the arguably-more troubling trend is how the “quality” of new teaching candidates appears to be on the decline. In 2004, Corcoran et al. concluded that they found a “decline in the relative ability of the average new female teacher” as measured by one’s percentile rank on a standardized test of verbal and mathematical aptitude. When Ingersoll et al. did their own digging into the numbers, they found that those majoring in education tended to have amongst the lowest average SAT scores. And to top it all off, they also found that those within most non-education majors who ended up becoming teachers had lower SAT scores than those in the same major who did not go into teaching.
Overall, not very promising statistics.
Now there is something to be said for the fact that test scores don’t mean everything when measuring the prospective quality of a teacher, but it is nonetheless an eye-opening trend that those with good grades — who are often the most sought-after candidates in other industries — are increasingly looking at teaching as, at worst, a non-viable profession, and at best, a backup plan.
Taken together, all these factors are reinforcing the downward spiral of K-12 education, and with it, the teaching profession as a whole.
So what can we do about it?
I don’t want to give off the impression that money (or lack thereof) is the only thing that is making teachers unhappy, as there is a laundry list of valid concerns that contribute to the high attrition and low job satisfaction.
But the best — and most straightforward — place to start is with compensation. In 2012, just over one-third of teachers felt that their salary was fair for the work they do and it is probably fair to assume that this number is fairly similar today. By focusing on compensation, America can simultaneously right other wrongs in the broader system as well.
So it is simple: pay them more, and in a more thoughtful way.
With that overarching goal in mind, let’s look at five specific recommendations that would allow us to not only improve teachers’ salaries, but the profession and K-12 education as a whole.
1. Better workforce planning (and less obsessing over class sizes)
This would require a fundamental shift in America’s mindset, but based on the ballooning effect I mentioned earlier, it would appear as though not enough thought goes into human resource planning across the country.
America’s singular obsession with keeping classrooms small has forced the country to employ overly reactive hiring practices, which has contributed to the unique problem of having too many teachers, but in all the wrong places (not to mention that, on its own, having small classes does not guarantee better education, and that there is growing evidence that raising teacher quality is a way more effective way to improve student outcomes than shrinking class sizes).
Moving forward, refocusing efforts on better hiring practices that are more indexed to the projected growth of the student population, instead of chasing the ever-smaller classroom, could lead to $1–3 billion in annual savings each year (based on estimated savings that could’ve been realized by better employing this practice over the past 30 years).
Net Impact: Redirecting those savings into compensating teachers would equate to as much as an almost $1,000 annual raise — a 2% wage increase to the average teacher. This also encourages districts and states to develop stronger partnerships with local education programs, which could lead to the identification and attraction of better candidates, ultimately helping in the establishment of healthier, longer-term hiring pipelines.
2. Significant reductions in standardized testing
If you want to annoy, frighten, depress, and stress out students and teachers in just two words, look no further than standardized testing. Although important to some extent, the US takes standardized testing way too far. Even with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which did away with a lot of the issues brought forth by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) from the Bush Administration, states are still required to administer a lot of tests:
Every year from grades three through eight;
Once in high school in math and reading; and
Once in grades 3–6, 6–9, and 10–12 for science.
This is on top of the plethora of district-mandated tests that students and teachers go through as well.
Depending on the year and/or state, that usually results in multiple standardized tests per student per year. In Ontario, where I’m from, we have four standardized tests between kindergarten and grade 12 (and two of those may soon get eliminated). Germany has two in grades 3 and 8. Finland, consistently cited as a leader in public education, only has one.
America’s obsession with integrating quantification and competition into education is doing the opposite of its desired effect, and its direct and indirect costs taken together are not insignificant.
It is reported from a 2012 paper that states directly spend approximately $1.7 billion on assessments each year, which the author estimates only represents 0.25% of annual K-12 spending.
But $1.7 billion is $1.7 billion; there is real, easy money to be saved by cutting the amount of standardized testing by 80–85%, which would put the country more in-line with its peers.
Net Impact: Assuming an 80% cut, by divvying up the inflation-adjusted savings evenly to every K-12 teacher, that would still roughly come out to a respectable $500 raise per teacher.
And how about the indirect costs that could be saved (AKA the time spent writing and preparing for the test)?
Let’s say there are 1,080 hours of classroom time in a school year (180 days * 6 hours per day).
Based on the graph on the below, we’ll assume that the average student spends 20 hours per year actually writing these tests, or roughly 2% of the entire school year (which is already ridiculous).
Where things get interesting/horrifying is when we start to account for test prep, something that 62% of teachers feel they spend way too much time on.
Based on a 2016 report from the Center on Education Policy, teachers estimate that they spend a whopping 26 days(!!!) preparing students for state- and district-mandated exams. Or in other words, almost 15% of the entire school year.
So between taking the test and preparing for the test, teachers are spending roughly 17% of their time on tests that rarely tie to the curriculum, and ultimately bring more headache than value to the student and teacher alike.
That’s 17% of the school year that a teacher could instead use to bring more fun and creativity to the classroom, or that schools could use to ensure teachers have better ongoing professional support and training opportunities. Districts and states could even use this time to experiment with useful curriculum modernizations, like introducing more hours dedicated to financial literacy, social media safety, or other real-world lessons.
Basically, the productivity and opportunity loss associated standardized testing is a helluva lot bigger than $1.7 billion.
Net Impact: Although it would be difficult to translate the indirect savings that could come with significantly cutting test prep time into concrete salary increases, it would probably do wonders in improving the relationship between front-line educators and administrators, and the overall teaching experience. By bringing some humanity back into the classroom and making a meaningful change to an area that is often-cited as a major reason why public school teachers leave the profession, the government could build some goodwill with a workforce that has been desperate to be heard for far too long.
3. Restructuring step-and-lane salary schedules to better promote retention
The two main factors that determine a teacher’s salary are experience and education. The more years of experience you accumulate, the more “steps” you climb; the more education you get, the higher salary “lane” you are placed in. An example of one from the Alabama State Department of Education is shown below.
What this shows is that your potential for wage growth is, to put it politely, trash. And not to pick on the lovely state of Alabama, as the relative salary increases in other states are comparable, but if you stay in the first lane as an Alabaman teacher, it’ll take you at least 6 years before you get a 10% pay bump over your starting salary. For a profession dealing with both a talent attraction and retention crisis, that just won’t cut it. Many people working in the private sector can get that in one year (or even one quarter) so it is no wonder why today’s top college students and early-career teachers are looking elsewhere for employment.
Put on a graph, an American teacher’s salary trajectory, based on current step-and-lane schedules, may look something like this:
Now if that doesn’t make you want to become a teacher, I don’t know what will…
What we need is something more like this:
We need to better incentivize retention by making it more lucrative to stick around, and encourage more ongoing professional development by establishing clear-cut, incremental salary ceilings based on certification. We don’t necessarily want money-hungry teachers, but these are people who are supporting their own families, raising their own kids, so we need to make the teaching profession more “sticky”, while making the financial case for leaving the profession increasingly harder to justify.
Net Impact: The pay gap with other university graduates is evident right from one’s first year as a teacher, but it actually gets progressively worse over time, opening up to its widest by mid-career. Based on survey findings from the national think tank Third Way, salaries for those established in a career, not just when starting, is an important factor in selecting a job. To be more efficient in spending, I think states could even get away with lowering entry salaries, as long as year-over-year salary increases are bigger and last over a longer period of time. So by more strategically loading salary bracket jumps — coupled with overall salary increases — we can make the long-term prospect of a teaching career more compelling, which can help limit the one-and-done problem we are seeing more and more with new teachers today.
4. A federal tax credit for those teaching in high-poverty schools
Governments investing in specific professions to promote better service accessibility and quality is not unprecedented. In the US, Medicare and Medicaid — two federal programs — distribute billions each year to support healthcare facilities that provide graduate medical education. In Canada, doctors receive a bonus or stipend of some form to practice in more remote communities. The US should employ a similar approach to bring better and more teachers to the highest-poverty schools.
As already mentioned, the country’s retention issue is most prominent in high-poverty schools, and this doesn’t just have a negative impact on the lives of the teachers; evidence has shown that high teacher turnover negatively impacts student and school-wide achievement levels as well.
What I haven’t mentioned is that, based on the 2015–2016 school year data collected via the National Teacher and Principal Survey, there is also a $4,100 gap between teachers working in the highest-poverty schools (75% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches (FRPL)) and the lowest poverty schools (less than 34% receiving FRPL). This gap is due to overall district budgets, but also by the fact that these schools are disproportionately taught by teachers with little-to-no experience because they are constantly stuck in this high turnover cycle.
To break this cycle, and establish more educator continuity in these schools, the federal government should use the federal tax code to create a permanent refundable Teacher Tax Credit. Meg Benner et al. drafted a compelling proposal pitching this concept in July 2018, and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a simple, effective, and clever way to boost wages for these teachers.
Essentially, teachers working in these schools would receive the established value of the credit through a dollar-for-dollar reduction in owed taxes, and a tax refund if the credit exceeds whatever taxes they owe. The tax credit would be progressive in nature, whereby the full credit would go to teachers in the highest-poverty schools — as defined earlier — and would slowly phase out as the relative impoverishment of the school decreases.
A well-designed tax credit would attack the turnover issue in high-poverty schools from two angles: it would attract more quality candidates to these schools to begin with, while better retaining the educators that are already there.
Net Impact: Benner and her team propose a $10,000 tax credit per teacher per year and for good reason: a National Center for Education Statistic studyfound that an extra $20,000 over a two-year period successfully incentivized teachers in 10 different school districts to transfer to high-poverty schools, and turnover went notably down over the study period. The cost of this proposal would be just under $15 billion annually, which is already similar to the investment that the federal government puts into supplementing the cost to train doctors; a small price to pay for building a better, more stable future for these students and teachers.
It is also important to call out the massive cost savings that could be realized by lowering the number of teachers that permanently leave the profession — a central benefit to most of the recommendations highlighted thus far — as it is estimated that the cost to replace a single teacher is more than $20,000. Using that figure, the country could save $640 million for every percentage point taken off the annual “leaving” rate (which, if you recall, is around 8%). If the US could get down to the 3–4% levels seen in most other advanced systems, that is over $3 billion in savings that could be reinvested to fund a program like this, or to encourage step-and-lane schedule reform.
5. A federal stimulus program (AKA Kamala Lite)
Senator Kamala Harris made headlines recently when she unveiled her first major policy proposal as a presidential candidate: a plan to boost teacher pay. The main takeaway from her plan is that she plans to give the average school teacher in America a $13,500 (or 23%) raise in base pay via “strengthening the estate tax and cracking down on loopholes that let the very wealthiest, with estates worth multiple millions or billions of dollars, avoid paying their fair share”. Her campaign puts the price tag in the hefty range of $315 billion over ten years.
I fundamentally agree with the idea, as evidenced by the fact that I’m writing this article, but I believe the scale may be a bit too ambitious (and expensive).
Harris plans to provide a base level of funding for every state in the country to cover the first 10% of finances needed to close the teacher pay gap in every state — sounds fair enough. The plan then goes on to describe a 3:1 contribution-matching plan, where every $1 contributed by a state to increase teacher pay will be matched by a $3 investment from the federal government until the pay gap is closed.
This is where I’m a bit skeptical.
That estimated $315 billion cost is only the federal estimate; it does not include what the states will have to pitch in to effectively make this matching happen. And as evidenced by cuts and generational wage stagnation, the states aren’t all that great at finding spare money to invest in education (or teachers).
Even in the case that the states take the federal government up on this offer — which, based on the experience of the Affordable Care Act’s approach of federally incentivizing states to add people to Medicaid, is not a guarantee — the states will likely just push down the costs to the public via property tax increases instead of budget reallocation, which will be a tough sell in many parts of the country.
As such, why don’t we stick to Kamala Lite: spread out Harris’s initial cash injection over a 5-year period, and even up it to cover the first 20% of funding, but scrap the contribution-matching component. This will bring the federal price tag down significantly, while still making a sizable impact on the wallets of teachers across the country.
Net Impact: Without knowing the specific assumptions built into Harris’s plan, let’s just take the simple approach and say that Kamala Lite would cost the federal government $64 billion over five years (20% of $315 billion). Keeping with Harris’s figures, this scaled-back approach would still lead to a $2,700 (4.5%) salary increase to the average teacher by the end of to-be-President Harris’s first term.
To quickly summarize all of the above, here is a table view of what these five recommendations could do, both financially and otherwise, for American teachers.
The pushback would be inevitable, but these are recommendations that I think most politicians could eventually buy into, and salary increases that most teachers could rally around.
With all of the above top of mind, the United States is clearly at a pivotal moment with its teachers. The year 2018 saw a near-historic number of teachers go on strike, with unfair wages always at or near the centre of the discussion.
The current administration would have you believe that the federal government should have nothing to do with K-12 education, and that the states and districts should be left to fend for themselves. There is definitely merit to the fact that education needs to be localized, but this is a national problem, and because it has been allowed to fester for so long, it now requires a national solution.
Throughout history, there are examples of jurisdictions taking a strong stance in the name of teacher empowerment.
After WWII in Japan, Prime Minister Tanaka made the courageous decision to raise teacher salaries to 30% higher than other public servants because he worried that respect for teachers was declining as incomes rose elsewhere.
In 2014, Ontario went through massive teacher reform to address the province’s oversupply and wavering quality of teachers, resulting in a near-50% reduction in the number of teaching education slots available, prep courses being extended to two years from one, and an improved step-and-lane schedule being created.
These are not easy policy decisions, but they are ones that strong governments have not been afraid to make for the overall betterment of the teaching profession.
America now finds itself in a position where it must put forth its own best effort for the sake of its teachers, and a logical and impactful first step would be to focus on increasing wages.
We all know that the problems run much deeper than salary, but a thoughtful investment in compensation sends the right message that teachers are being heard and that positive change is coming.
After all, an investment in teachers is an investment in students, and ultimately, the country’s future.