Teacher pay and Inequality

If you’re interested in more stories and data visualizations like this, follow along at American Inequality.

In December 2021, a hockey game in South Dakota featured teachers competing to stuff cash in their shirts for classroom supplies. Despite great intentions, the video became symbolic of how undervalued teachers are in America.

Given the acute pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place on schools, it’s more important than ever to reiterate that we need to treat our teachers better. That pressure warrants an appropriate level of compensation.

Teacher salaries are 20% lower than peers

According to the National Education Association (NEA) in 2020, 48% of school districts in the United States offered a salary below $40,000. Only 13% of districts offer a starting salary of $50,000.

Teachers make 20% less than their peers with similar levels of education, experience, and training. This gap has continued to widen over the last 30 years, In 1996, teachers used to make $0.94 cents for every $1.00 their peers made in other industries, but now make $0.80 for every $1.00 as of 2021.

Looking closer, we can see there are a wide range of salaries across America. In major cities and Northern states, teachers tend to have higher average salaries. The differences are stark. According to Education Week in 2019, the average teacher salary in New York was $40,000 higher than a teacher’s salary in Mississippi. 6 of the 10 best counties for average teacher salaries are in New York, with the average teacher earning at least $78,000 pre-tax annually

6 of the 10 worst counties for teacher pay are located in Arkansas. In these counties, teachers are paid less than $24,000 annually, and let’s not forget this is pre-tax. One would probably assume it’s better to teach in a higher paying district, but salaries provide a small amount of context without comparing them to costs.

Repeat after me: Not a livable wage

Without putting teacher pay into the context of living expenses, it can be hard to relate to how much school employees struggle outside of the classroom. For example, teachers in Essex County, Massachusetts earn on average $58,000 annually, but spend nearly half of their monthly wages on rent. HUD recommends that no person spend more than 30% of their income on rent, yet 1 in 2 teachers spend half their income on rent. As a result, even higher salaries can get eaten up in expensive counties when we include student loan payments, car payments and more.

In the top map, Missouri appears red since average pay is $33,135 annually. When that’s compared to rent, however, the entire state appears to show better conditions than most of Massachusetts. Colorado’s average salary stands at $42,309, but the rising costs of living suggests that the current teachers salary might be untenable.

Sexism plays a historical role in why teacher pay is so low, and 76% of all teachers are women. In elementary schools, where students’ early learning affects the rest of their life, 90% of teachers were women as of 2018.

1 in 3 new teachers works a second job

Rosa Jimenez taught social studies at UCLA Community School in Los Angeles in 2018. Despite making $73,000 per year, she and her 10 year old son shared a bed paying $1,100 per month in a one-bedroom apartment. Her school’s lack of supplies for her classroom forces her to spend an extra $1,000 per year. With LA’s high cost of living, she can barely save $300 each month after 12 years of teaching.

On the other side of the United States, Hope Brown taught history for 16 years in Versailles, Kentucky. She earned $55,000 per year. At night, she worked at a sports arena for extra $9 per hour. During the summer, she had to donate plasma twice to put gas in her car. In spite of it all, she can’t think of another job where can feel as fulfilled as a professional.

Unfortunately, these stories are all too common. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 16% of public school teachers worked summer jobs, and 18% had second jobs during the school year. In 2015, 1 in 3 first year teachers worked a second job, which often accounted for 12% of their total income.

Teachers are 3x likelier than other workers to have to hold down multiple jobs as once.

Almost 20% of teachers cited their salary as a very important reason for leaving the profession in 2013.

Low-income students, low-income teachers

Students who need the most support are taught by teachers who also get the least support. Qualifying for Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FLRP) means that students can receive meals for free or reduced prices at schools if their poverty meets a certain threshold. FLRP is often used as a proxy for child poverty in education research.

When more students qualify for FLRP, teachers get paid less. The chart above shows that teachers are often paid less in areas where more students qualify for FLRP, and have greater needs. Essentially, teachers are compensated less for working with students who may miss breakfast, live in poverty, experience homelessness, or lack basic school supplies. As a result, schools with high concentrations of poverty are often challenging to teach in. Low teacher pay and high concentrations of poverty also create interlocking issues that disproportionately affect indigenous students and students of color. In 2018, nearly half of all Black, Latinx and Native American students in the United States attended a high-poverty school.

Paying teachers more won’t single-handedly close the achievement gap, nor will it raise students out of poverty. It’s far more complex than that, but when teachers leave their jobs for better pay, the real victims are the students. Over years, teachers become fixtures in communities where students depend on adults they can trust, and who understand them. The cycle of teachers leaving creates instability in school communities, making it harder for students to stay engaged and not lose faith in their education.

The Path Forward

A trick question in the education policy world is asking, “What’s the one thing you would do to fix education?” The answer is always that there’s no silver bullet. To address the low teacher wages, and the inequality of who those teachers serve, there are a few solutions:

  • Pay teachers more from the start: Most teacher contracts permit gradual increases in pay over decades, often around $1000 per year, but teachers could be paid more & sooner based on their effectiveness. Effectiveness can be measured by principal ratings, standardized test scores, and other metrics. In Washington DC, removing the gradual approach allowed the district to pay teachers a starting salary north of $70,000 in a high-poverty school. Most cities and counties that also implemented this payment structure increased their maximum salaries for highly effective teachers by $10,000.
  • Give teachers a sliding tax credits in high-poverty schools: Given that education is primarily managed by states and localities, the federal government could provide sliding tax credits based on the percentage of high-poverty students. Teachers could receive a $10,000 tax credit when a school has more than 75% of students receiving FRLP. The tax credit would decrease by $400 each time that percentage decreased, and would end if fewer than 50% of students had FRLP. The tax credit incentivizes teachers to keep working in their districts, while attracting more talent to work there as well. This model has worked well in both the UK and Singapore.

Investing in teacher salaries can reduce inequality for teachers across regions, retain talent in classrooms, and reduce the inequality for students between more affluent and high-poverty schools. The pandemic taught us that we need teachers to be there for our students. If we can’t pay them a living wage, we risk the loss of an essential, basic function of our society.

Alex Audet received his masters Politics & Education from the Teachers College at Columbia University. Alex was a high school math and computer science teacher in Norwalk, CT from 2017–2020.




Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com

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Jeremy Ney

Jeremy Ney

Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com

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