Pay It Backward

By Catherine Gewertz — September 01, 2004 3 min read
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Why teachers are making less than they were a decade ago.

If you’re an educator, you know the news already—it’s printed on every paycheck you get. Still, a recent report that the average teacher salary has declined in the past 10 years is worth a closer look.

According to data gathered from the 527 districts that responded to the nonprofit Educational Research Service’s National Survey of Salaries and Wages in Public Schools, the mean of classroom teachers’ average salaries in unadjusted dollars rose from $36,531 in 1993-94 to $45,646 in 2003-04. After factoring in cost-of-living increases, however, the average teacher salary actually fell by $871 1.87 percent during the past decade.

By contrast, the salary level for every other education profession tracked by the survey rose, some by double digits. The average inflation-adjusted salary of superintendents, for example, jumped more than 12 percent during the same period. And high school principals’ salaries have risen by more than 4 percent, to $86,160. Even the pay of such support personnel as custodians and bus drivers rose nearly 5 percent.

In urban areas in particular, says Norm Fruchter, director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, big-city districts pay high salaries to talented superintendents willing to address chronically low student achievement. But that willingness to fork out top dollar to top officials has not been extended to teachers, he says—a disparity he attributes to a lack of respect for and understanding of the profession. People think “teachers work a half-day and have summers off,” says Fruchter, whose son and stepdaughter both teach in New York City high schools. “They don’t see the amount of work that goes home with them.”

“It’s really tragic,” agrees Tom Mooney, a vice president of the 1.3million-member American Federation of Teachers and the president of its state affiliate in Ohio. It’s sadly ironic, he adds, that the pay decrease coincides with the increased national push for accountability and high standards, along with all the extra documentation work that the push entails for teachers. “We’re going to do all this on the cheap?” he asks. “That is a joke.”

But there were some glimmers of light for teachers in the otherwise- gloomy pay portrait. While teachers’ actual salaries overall lost ground in the districts surveyed, ERS data indicate that contract salaries for entry- level teachers have grown by 30.6 percent over the past decade, outpacing inflation by more than3 percentage points. ERS researchers speculate that some states’ efforts to attract new teachers with higher pay might be fueling that trend. On the other side of the equation, some of the overall decline in teacher pay could be driven by the retirement of experienced teachers at the upper end of the pay scale and their replacement with younger, lower-paid teachers, ERS researchers said. Where teachers live and work also significantly affected how much they were paid. The sun shone a little brighter for teachers in the suburbs; they earned $50,844 on average, more than educators in any other type of community. Teachers in rural areas made the least $41,131. (For a complete statistical overview, go to Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

ERS researchers caution that although the 527 school districts that responded to the survey are nationally representative and “could be considered a comprehensive picture of salaries,” the data are not weighted to estimate national statistics. The responding districts account for 4.7 percent of the nation’s 11,206 public school systems enrolling 300 or more students; smaller districts were not surveyed. The figures are in line with those released in mid-July from another wide-ranging survey of teacher salaries. The annual report by the American Federation of Teachers pegged the average salary in 2002-03, the last year for which the AFT had figures, at $45,771.

John Forsyth, ERS’s president and director of research, said that the salary trends suggest the need for better compensation in public education across the board. “Relative to other professions requiring similar training,” he said, “public school salaries are too low and...should be raised to levels that are professionally competitive and market-sensitive.


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