Teaching Profession What the Research Says

Do Teachers Really Earn More After Leaving the Classroom? Not Necessarily

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 12, 2024 4 min read
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Teachers often leave the classroom for better pay, but it’s no guarantee. Many take a salary hit when they quit teaching from which they still haven’t recovered nearly a decade later.

A new study in the Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal finds that while 1 in 5 teachers who left one large urban district had significantly higher income eight years later, the vast majority earned less than they did before they left their classrooms. And 1 in 5 teachers who left ended up unemployed, some because they left the classroom to care for family.

“We thought it would be much clearer that teachers would leave their current positions for something that paid them a lot more, and that would be the main thing that motivated their transition,” said Emily Penner, co-author of the study and an associate professor of education at the University of California-Irvine. “That seems to be true for some subset of people, but certainly fewer than half. Staying in education and moving up a little bit was the ticket—not guaranteed for everybody, but very strongly associated with earning more later.”

The median pay for public school teachers today is about $61,000 per year for the elementary grades and about $1,000 more for secondary grades—significantly less than those with similar education working in other fields, according to federal data. Pay is one of the most consistent reasons given when teachers leave their jobs.

Penner and her colleagues linked administrative, tax, and U.S. Census data for about 3,400 teachers who left a 50,000-student urban school district in the West between 2003-04 and 2014-15, as well as 4,000 teachers who remained through 2016. The high-poverty district, whose student body was more than 80 percent students of color and more than a quarter English learners at the time, had higher teacher pay than the state average, but about 17 percent of teachers left in a given year.

Researchers found nearly 60 percent of the teachers who left the district stayed in education, moving to a neighboring district, private school, or related jobs. Teachers who had earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards were more likely to make more money after moving to a new job in or out of education. On average, after eight years, teachers who left the district made about $10,000 less per year than teachers who had stayed with the district, and less than they had earned before leaving the district.

Leaving education entirely did pay off in a big way for about 10 percent of early-career teachers, who as much as doubled their salary within four years. In particular, top teachers of high-need science, technology, engineering, and math courses made upwards of $100,000 within a few years of leaving education. But about 20 percent of those who left remained unemployed eight years later, and those who left education earned less on average than those who stayed.

Teachers who had been ranked in the highest quartile on value-added evaluation systems in English/language arts were more likely to earn more after they left the classroom, but there was no such benefit for math teachers. However, it’s not clear how much of a role evaluations play in future earning, since Penner said districts often do not share teacher ratings with other employers.

Gender differences in teaching careers

Men and women often faced different career trajectories after leaving the classroom, the study found.

Male teachers were far more likely than female teachers to find another job after leaving the district, and also more likely to make successful transitions to highly paid non-education jobs. Both men and women who chose to leave education made on average just under $40,000 seven years later. But the highest-earning quarter of men who left education made on average more than $90,000 a year—about $30,000 more than the highest-earning quarter of women who left education.

“I don’t know exactly what it is about the kinds of positions that they’re attracted to, or the jobs they pursue or the skills they communicate about themselves,” Penner said, “but something about that process for a subset of men can yield much greater earnings, much more quickly, than for women who are exiting the district.”

“That’s very troubling to me, quite frankly,” she said. “It highlights, I think, some of the labor market constraints that women face in and outside of education.”

One contributing factor to the disparity is that women were also more likely than men to leave their teaching jobs to care for children or other family members. Female teachers who had a spouse earning in the top 25 percent of state incomes were also significantly more likely to remain unemployed.

“If [a teacher’s] spouse has relatively high income, after some conversation about their family dynamics, they may choose to exit teaching—presumably because their spouse’s job facilitates that or that’s somehow preferred for their family,” Penner said.

The study did not track teachers who retired, though many teachers who retired during the 2008 recession ultimately returned to work.

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