Study Finds Teachers Are Losing Ground On Salary Front

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Teachers' salaries have slipped over the past decade to well below those of comparable professions, a trend that is certain to complicate efforts to recruit and retain highly qualified educators for the nation's public schools, asserts a report released last week by the Economic Policy Institute.

The report, "How Does Teacher Pay Compare?: Methodological Challenges and Answers," joins a number of conflicting salary studies in recent years—including ones suggesting that when teachers’ benefits and work hours are figured in their pay compares favorably with that in other professions requiring similar levels of knowledge and skills.

But the new study, which is based on data and methods different from those of previous analyses, contends that its conclusions reflect the salary disparities more accurately.

"No matter how we analyze the data, we find that teachers earn less than comparable workers," said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Washington-based institute. "And when you look at what’s happened over the last 10 years, it’s apparent that teachers have lost substantial ground in terms of pay."

Mr. Mishel and his co-authors, Sylvia A. Allegretto and Sean P. Corcoran, relied heavily on results from household surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which ask employees about their wages and work hours. The researchers concluded that the National Compensation Survey, which includes wage and work-hour data collected from employers and has been used for other salary comparisons, does not fully measure the time teachers work in a given week relative to the hours of workers in other professions.

A recent Education Week analysis of survey data for more than 500 school districts found that their average teacher salary had declined by nearly 2 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade. ("Schools Chiefs Lead The Way in Pay Trends," June 23, 2004.)

For the EPI study, teachers’ salaries were compared against those of accountants, journalists, registered nurses, computer programmers, clergy, and several other professions. Weekly wages were used to allow comparisons between those professionals who work throughout the year and others, such as teachers, on part-year contracts.

Comparatively Speaking

According to the EPI analysis, teachers’ wages have slipped behind other workers with similar education and experience by nearly 15 percent since 1993 and 12 percent since 1983, after adjusting for inflation. In 2003, teachers earned an average of $833 in gross pay a week, compared with $1,078 for other college graduates. Side by side with comparable professions, teachers earned $116 less per week that year. And while other college graduates saw weekly wages increase some 12 percent since 1996, teachers’ paychecks grew just 0.8 percent in that time.

Although teachers tend to receive greater benefits, such as health insurance and pensions, the authors say, those extras are not valuable enough to make up for the differences in wages. Teachers also do not generally earn the same paid leave, bonuses, and overtime common in other professions.

The pay gap could undermine the push to hire qualified teachers, the researchers said.

"Over time, the wage gap between teachers and their peers becomes a gulf that can sabotage the best schools’ efforts to recruit and retain the best teachers," said Ms. Allegretto, an economist at the institute, a nonpartisan think tank supported in part by labor unions.

But some experts are skeptical of the new analysis. Michael Podgursky, a professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the reliance on wage data reported by employees potentially poses difficulties for researchers. Asking teachers, for example, about their weekly pay does not necessarily take into account that their salaries for the nine or 10 months of the year they work may be spread out over 52 weekly pay periods, skewing the amount, he said.

"Their big claim," he said, referring to the EPI authors, "is that the pay has deteriorated. … But I would want to see that verified from some other survey."

The authors are still analyzing the data to tease out wage trends in different regions of the country, in union vs. nonunion jurisdictions, and by other demographics such as age.

Vol. 24, Issue 1, Page 12

Published in Print: September 1, 2004, as Study Finds Teachers Are Losing Ground On Salary Front
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