Education Opinion

What Teacher-Salary Averages Don’t Show

By Gale Gaines — January 10, 2001 6 min read
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We need to look beyond statewide average salaries to find other roadblocks keeping high-quality teachers out of the classroom.

We hear and read a lot about salary averages for teachers—unquestionably the largest part of education spending in states across the nation. Salary averages are used to compare progress on goals from year to year, and states often are ranked based on these averages.

Not surprisingly, as state legislatures begin meeting this month, many will be focusing on the quality of teaching and teacher pay. Southern states such as Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina want to bring their teacher-salary averages to the national average; Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi are aiming for the regional average, which is about 90 percent of the national figure.

These goals are important, but traditional comparisons of salary averages fail to take into account factors beyond pay raises that affect those averages. What don’t salary averages show? Consider the following:

  • Salary averages don’t show regional and national variations among states’ average salaries.You may think that half the states have average teacher salaries above the national average and half have average teacher salaries below that level. Actually, only 15 states have average teacher salaries that are above the national average. The other 35 states have average teacher salaries below the national average. There also is tremendous variation among states’ average salaries: from a low of $28,600 in South Dakota to a high of $51,600 in Connecticut—a difference of 80 percent.

  • Salary averages don’t show the variation of salaries within an individual state. Districts’ salary averages within a state can vary as much as or more than salary averages among states. In one Southern state, the difference between the district with the lowest average ($26,364) and the district with the highest average ($49,559)is 88 percent.

  • Salary averages don’t show differences in the cost of living. It costs more to live in some places than in others, and this cost varies among states and communities. According to a recent study, Hawaii’s cost of living is highest (133 percent of the national average) and Arkansas’ is lowest (88 percent of the national average). Costs of living within states also can vary greatly. In fact, the differences within states can be greater than the variations among states.

  • Salary averages don’t show the highest degrees earned by teachers and the proportions of different degrees. Pay often is linked to the highest degree earned. Each state has a different mix of teachers with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Teachers with bachelor’s degrees are paid less than teachers with advanced degrees and similar years of experience. Nationally, half of teachers have no more than bachelor’s degrees; the percentages range from 20 percent in Connecticut to about 80 percent in North Dakota.

  • Salary averages don’t show teachers’ years of experience. Teachers’ pay increases with years of experience, and experience levels differ significantly from state to state. Two states could have the same salary schedule but different salary averages because one state has a higher percentage of teachers who have more than 20 years’ experience. Nationally, roughly 30 percent of teachers have more than 20 years of full-time teaching experience, ranging from 18 percent in Utah to 44 percent in the District of Columbia.

  • Salary averages don’t show the effects of retirement patterns. When teachers retire, salary averages can decline. Teachers who retire most likely are at the top end of the pay schedule and often are replaced with less experienced, lower-paid teachers. As a result, salary averages tend to drop. During the recession in the early 1990s, the average salaries in two Southern states declined one year because there were no general pay raises and many teachers retired.

  • Salary averages don’t show the expanding numbers of teachers. Adding more teachers at lower salary levels obviously can affect a state’s average salary for teachers. Just as retired teachers often are replaced with lower- paid, less experienced teachers, new teaching positions (created because of policies to reduce class sizes or other initiatives) can go to young teachers. Nationwide, the number of teachers has increased more than 20 percent in the past 10 years.

It is time to think differently about salaries.

  • Salary averages don’t show the length of teachers’ contracts. The length of the school year for teachers is not the same from state to state. Teachers in Alabama, for example, are paid for 182 days each year, while those in North Carolina are paid for 220 days annually—a difference of more than 20 percent. Policies on vacation, personal leave, and sick leave also differ, so the actual number of days that teachers work can vary significantly.

  • Salary averages don’t show the cost of employee benefits. Information on benefits is not part of salary averages and is not reported widely. Employer contributions for retirement, health insurance, and other benefits are part of teachers’ total compensation. These contributions can vary greatly among states and districts; differences can amount to hundreds—and even thousands—of dollars based on the same salary.

  • Salary averages don’t show priorities for quality. Raising the achievement of all students requires a quality teacher in every classroom. States have various salary policies to attract high-quality graduates of teacher education programs; to draw good teachers into subjects and geographic areas in which there are shortages; and to encourage the best teachers to remain in the classroom. These policies can raise individual teachers’ salaries by thousands of dollars. For example, many states hope to retain the best teachers by offering bonuses for those who achieve national certification. In Southern states, the annual bonuses for the 10-year certificates range from $1,000 to $7,500.

While comparisons of salary averages can be useful, it is time to think about salaries differently. If the goal is to ensure there is a high-quality teacher in every classroom, state leaders need to look beyond the statewide average salary to find the roadblocks to achieving that goal: Are beginning salaries high enough to attract high-quality graduates, particularly in subjects or geographic areas in which there are shortages? Do salaries, incentives, and opportunities encourage the best teachers to remain in classrooms? Does the state know when and why teachers are most likely to leave their jobs? What role can salary adjustments play in keeping good teachers?

Considering the amount of information that salary averages do not tell us, state leaders need to consider the many factors that affect salary averages and look closely at how salary decisions can support state priorities for quality.

Gale Gaines is the director of legislative services at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. The SREB works to improve education at all levels in 16 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as What Teacher-Salary Averages Don’t Show


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