What If America’s Teachers Made More Money?

A number of states want to raise their salaries, but it’s unclear whether the increases will do much to solve schools’ staffing problems.

Tia Martin, a long-term substitute teacher, leads a third-grade class at an elementary school in Nevada, one of many states struggling with teacher shortages. (John Locher / AP)

As districts in certain parts of the country battle staffing shortages and schools nationwide seek to overcome a general sense of dissatisfaction among faculty, several states are considering proposals to pay their public-school teachers more money. The average public-school teacher salary in the United States in the 2012-13 academic year was $56,000, versus roughly $69,000 for nurses and $83,000 for programmers. Experts say raising that threshold could help improve the profession’s lackluster reputation and encourage more high-achieving college students to pursue the career—especially in less-than-desirable schools and districts. The ultimate goal, of course, is to improve the quality of kids’ education: A recent report from the OECD found that students are more likely to be low-performers if they attend schools that struggle with shortages and low teacher morale.

In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin’s proposed budget would allocate $178 million in new money to support a $3,000 raise for every teacher in the state, where teachers earned about $44,000 on average in 2012. “In this unprecedented teacher shortage, it is absolutely critical that we as a state address teacher compensation and give teachers a stronger reason to stay in Oklahoma classrooms,” state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister was quoted as saying in response to the plan. In South Dakota, home to the country’s lowest teacher salaries, Governor Dennis Daugaard wants to raise the sales tax by half a cent in an effort to increase teacher pay to $48,500. Tennessee and New Mexico are considering similar proposals, and a controversial bill is making its way through Indiana’s legislature that would in part allow teachers to negotiate extra pay.

There’s a chance these plans will see results: A number of studies—including one on a program in North Carolina that offered a bonus of $1,800 to only math, science, and special-education teachers working in struggling public schools—have shown that modest salary increases can help stem turnover. But it’s hard to say whether such proposals will ultimately have long-lasting impact on the general teacher shortage. Surveys suggest that although teachers’ job satisfaction has declined significantly in recent years, their perceptions about pay have hardly changed; factors beyond money contribute to the recruitment-and-turnover problems.

In places already struggling with shortages and those resorting to mass emergency certifications, the challenge is finding new teachers who are qualified, competent, and dedicated to the profession. Achieving this goal, researchers say, is complicated—something that a few extra hundred, or even thousand, dollars alone won’t solve. “If you want to improve the pipeline of new teachers, you have to start early,” said Sean Corcoran, an associate professor of educational economics at NYU who has conducted extensive research on the U.S. teaching force. “Raising salaries today is not going to increase the quality of recruits tomorrow.”

Perceived low pay certainly seems to account for a tiny slice of teachers’ concerns; salaries, Corcoran said, “are definitely not the end of the story.” In a “Quality of Worklife” survey of more than 30,000 educators last year, just 46 percent said their salaries were a major source of stress in the workplace. Testing fatigue, bloated bureaucracy, little time to reflect and decompress and develop professionally have all taken a significant toll on teachers’ job satisfaction. In that same survey, which was conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and an activist group known as the Badass Teachers Association, nearly three in four respondents identified the “adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development” as a major source of stress, for example. “We used to be treated as professionals who were allowed to have autonomy in our classrooms and play to our strengths or our background in education,” Rebecca Simcoe, a former high-school English teacher in Tulsa with a doctorate who resigned in 2014, told CBS News last year. “Now we’re expected to be automatons following their robotic instructions, just getting these kids to pass tests.” Most states, from Oregon to New York, now tie teacher evaluations to student test scores; in 2009, only a handful of states did so.

And teachers’ workplace woes run the gamut from the political to the mundane: As I’ve written before, the Quality of Worklife survey found that one in four teachers cite their lack of time to use the restroom is an everyday stressor. It’s no wonder so many teachers opt to work in private schools, which typically offer much lower pay but working conditions that are far more palatable. Or that they often forego sizable raises in exchange for working in tougher conditions. One Mathematica study on 10 school districts in multiple states found that a majority of the candidates who’d been selected for a program offering $20,000 to highly effective teachers who agreed to transfer to and remain at low-performing schools declined to participate; most didn’t even attend an information session. As the teacher Paul Barnwell argued in a piece for The Atlantic last year, “No matter the compensation scheme, these strategies fail to acknowledge the impact of school culture and climate on work satisfaction—which often takes precedence over pay for experienced teachers.”

Mallerie Niemann, a student teacher in Central California who’s slated to finish up her credentialing program in May, said she’s “skeptical” the kinds of pay increases under consideration in other states will make much of a difference for teachers. “I wonder how much a salary [raise] can really influence productivity—how well you perform your job, how much you enjoy your job,” she said. “It’s more support from the community, more support from the administration that are really going to have influence.” In fact, Niemann plans to take a year off to travel after getting her certificate—even though delaying her foray into teaching means she’ll make thousands less in the long run.

Salary increases may, however, prove to be an important tool in stabilizing the teaching force in the short term by sending the message to educators that the time and energy they sacrifice for their jobs aren’t being taken for granted. The Metlife survey found that roughly two in three public-school teachers felt their salaries weren’t fair for the work they do, and chances are that percentage has only grown as a result of new classroom reforms, including high-stakes evaluation systems, that some argue have placed excessive burdens on educators.

It’s also worth noting that while teachers in the U.S. make about the same as their counterparts elsewhere, they tend to clock in many more hours: A New York Times analysis of OECD data found that U.S. teachers spend an average of about 1,080 hours teaching annually, compared to the OECD average of about 700 to 800 hours depending on the grade level. Meanwhile, the difference in pay between high-school teachers and other college graduates is much larger in the U.S. than it is in other OECD countries on average. In other words, a little extra pay may help reduce some of those international disparities and give U.S. teachers—both current and prospective—a small but significant morale boost.

It could also be a deciding factor for prospective teachers who are on the fence about whether to pursue the profession—or current ones who are considering another job offer. Money was one of several factors that determined Sean True’s decision to leave his teaching position for a job as the director of curriculum development for the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in California. One of the first ideas he proposed as a new administrator in a district struggling with staffing problems was to raise salaries: “When you’re not the highest-paying district in your area,” you’re going to struggle with turnover, said True, who taught social studies in middle and high schools for 20 years. “You need to arrest turnover when you want to ensure quality.”

But perhaps more importantly, districts, he said, also have to ensure teachers have quality opportunities to both improve their craft and contribute “[to decision-making] at a higher level than they currently do. They need to feel bought in.” And these kinds of interactions are proven to elevate student achievement; an analysis of more than 1,000 studies found that students scored 21 percentage points higher than average on standardized tests when their teachers had access to ongoing professional support and training.

Indeed, if the realities in other countries are any indication, compensation ultimately factors little into the state of teaching. A 2013 survey by the Varkey Foundation aimed to gauge the level of respect for and the social standing of teachers in close to two dozen countries, asking respondents in part to rank teachers against other professionals. Teachers held the highest status in China—where the majority ranked them as holding the same status as doctors—followed by Greece and Turkey. Their adjusted salaries (in U.S. dollars)? $17,730, $23,321, and $25,378, respectively.