For Teachers, the Money Keeps Getting Worse

When classroom jobs were female college graduates’ best option, U.S. schools could skimp on wages. To fill vacancies now, districts and state legislatures need to offer competitive pay.

Empty classroom seen through a peephole.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

As kids and parents settle into another school year, principals and superintendents in districts across the country are still scrambling to fill vacant teaching positions. The severity of the shortages varies from state to state; across urban, suburban, and rural districts; and from one subject area to another. The number of unfilled positions is greatest in high-needs schools, such as those with high poverty rates or a disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities or English-language deficiencies.

If past experience holds true, many vacancies in September will morph into permanent shortages that continue throughout the year. In Arizona, for example, a survey conducted in December 2017—months after class started—by an association of public-school personnel administrators in the state reported nearly 2,000 vacancies. When kids are expecting routine, consistency, and continuity, many face the opposite. On a day-to-day basis, schools make do by casting around for substitute teachers, asking other teachers to work more, deploying nonteaching staff, or even taking a “warm body” approach that allows just about anyone to fill in. The absence of permanent qualified teachers harms student achievement and depletes school budgets. It also adds to the frustrations that led to a remarkable series of local and statewide teacher strikes last year.

To address teacher shortages, policy makers at the national and local levels have proposed more extensive recruitment efforts and looser certification rules. But a deep look at the numbers suggests that such tinkering will only achieve so much. Teachers, on average, are paid significantly less than similar college graduates. According to research that my colleague Lawrence Mishel and I published this year, the pay disparity has reached a record high.

For decades, school districts essentially had a captive labor pool. But even as discrimination against women has decreased in law, medicine, finance, and other professional fields, the United States has continued to pay public-school teachers as if women had no other career choices. Yet lawmakers—including market-oriented conservatives who, in other contexts, might recognize that compensation must rise if supply is to meet demand—have been loath to allocate enough money to keep would-be teachers from doing something else.

Mishel and I have been analyzing teacher wages and compensation since 2004. In our earliest work, we analyzed the 1960 census to get a long look at the trend. Women, who were shut out of most other occupations, represented 73 percent of teachers. In 1960, nearly half of all employed women with at least three years of college were elementary-school teachers and secondary-school teachers. These two occupational categories held, by far, the highest shares of women. (You will not be surprised to learn that nursing, with 8.6 percent of educated women, came in third). Our analysis accounted for differences in age, education, experience, geographic region, and other factors. Mishel and I found that, in 1960, women who were teachers enjoyed a 15 percent relative wage premium compared with similar female workers. In other words, becoming a teacher was more lucrative than other fields open to women. That wage premium had fallen to 6.9 percent by 1979. By the mid-1990s—as illustrated in the chart below—women teachers and other professional women were at parity. But that quickly turned into a sizable penalty for women teachers. By 2018, they were earning 15.1 percent less than similar working women.

In other words, the wages of women teachers relative to other female professionals plunged by 30 percentage points from 1960 to 2018. As women became more educated, and occupations long out of reach opened to them, wages for women outside of education also increased.

All permanent teachers are now required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, so Mishel and I compared the relative weekly wages of public-school teachers with those of other college graduates. From 1996 to 2018, we found, the average weekly-wage level of all public-school teachers actually decreased from $1,216 to $1,195, when adjusted for inflation. The squeeze on teachers’ pay did not happen, by and large, to other professionals. The weekly wages of other college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777. The chart above reports the relative teacher wage gaps from 1979 through 2018. In 1979, teachers earned 7.3 percent less than other professionals; the wage penalty nearly tripled, to 21.4 percent, in 2018.

Looking at the relative wages of men in the teaching profession helps to explain, at least in part, why the share of men in the teaching field is the same today as it was in 1960—just over a quarter. In 1979, male teachers were paid 17.8 percent less than comparably educated professional men; the gap worsened considerably, to 31.6 percent in 2018. Many educators think that there is a need for more male teachers—especially as educators tackle the issue of boys, on average, performing worse in school than girls. But, it is doubtful men will enter the teaching profession when other opportunities are so much more lucrative.

As the wage gap widens, school districts may be counting on pensions and other benefits of teaching to be attractive enough to draw job applicants. It is true that teachers enjoy a bit of a benefit premium compared with other professionals. In 2018, nonwage benefits made up 29.1 percent of teachers’ total compensation—a significantly greater share than for other professionals (21.5 percent). In 2018, teachers’ benefits were 8.4 percent more generous than those of other professionals. When coupled with the 21.4 percent wage disadvantage, teachers’ total compensation was 13.1 percent less than other professionals. But the offset that benefits provide goes only so far. In the end, teachers have bills to pay, and they can only spend their wages, not their benefits.

Last year’s strikes exposed effects from the Great Recession that lingered a decade later; deep cuts to state funding for local districts remained in place even as public coffers recovered. Teachers in Oklahoma, for instance, walked out because they had not had a raise in a decade.

Our research also included state-by-state estimates of the wage penalties that teachers face. These gaps are informative because they compare teachers with other college graduates within each state—which accounts for cost-of-living differences and other factors. It is no coincidence that some of the largest state gaps are in states that had teacher actions. West Virginia, where teachers face an 18.3 percent wage penalty, was the epicenter of the movement. The largest penalty, 32.6 percent, is in Arizona—where, last year, nearly 3,400 teaching positions were held by someone who lacked the qualifications to be a teacher. Seen in this context, the statewide strike in Arizona should have come as no surprise at all. Gaps were greater than 25 percent in Colorado, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, which also saw major strikes. Teacher pay in all states except five had pay differentials of at least 10 percent.

The support last year’s strikers drew from entire communities was heartening. After 40 years, the mantra that government can’t do anything right—that public goods are unimportant—may be losing its grip. The lowering of taxes for corporations and wealthy people has depleted the funds necessary to support public education and pushed inequality to perilous levels. Our children are paying the price, as does the rest of society.

The United States is the richest country in the world and should have the best public-school system in the world. The defunding of public-school districts is a long-term trend that has resulted in a cascade of practical problems: large class sizes, inadequate support staff, crumbling buildings, and outdated supplies and books. But the damage to children’s education may be most acute when experienced teachers quit because they cannot make ends meet—or when the most promising would-be teachers cannot envision a secure living in the field. Higher teacher salaries are not a panacea for every last problem in public education, but school districts and lawmakers alike must recognize that would-be teachers have other, better-paying job options—and that drawing college graduates into education will require paying them more. Will, not wealth, is what’s lacking.