Teaching Profession Opinion

Science Teachers’ Pay Doesn’t Add Up

By Gerald F. Wheeler — May 13, 2008 6 min read
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Forty-five years ago this past fall—not too long after the Soviets had launched Sputnik—I started teaching high school chemistry and physics in Connecticut. In the early 1960s, the nation was galvanized by the threat of Soviet domination in science. Congress had passed the $1 billion National Defense Education Act, and a whole lot of science and math teachers were in classrooms nationwide.

Ah, the good old days!

Notwithstanding all the recent national reports on science and math education, many groups, including the National Science Teachers Association, are eagerly hoping for another nationwide kick-in-the-pants moment similar to Sputnik that would focus the country’s attention on science education.

When we discuss reform, we have to stop ignoring the large green elephant in the room holding the sign saying 'TEACHER PAY.'

Why? We are losing ground to our international competitors, and science education is the basis for future scientific discoveries and innovations. Teachers play a key role in student achievement, and in today’s competitive marketplace, we absolutely must attract our share of the best and brightest to science teaching. But to do this, two things must happen. First, when we discuss reform, we have to stop ignoring the large green elephant in the room holding the sign saying “TEACHER PAY.” And second, we need to talk specifically about paying science teachers salaries comparable to those of science professionals in the private sector.

Consider these statistics:

• The American Federation of Teachers’ Survey and Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 2005 reports that the average beginning teacher salary in the 2004-05 school year was $31,753, up 3.1 percent from the previous year. “For the first time since 1982,” the AFT asserts, “teacher salaries are less than the average earnings of government workers, making them among the lower-paid public employees. When adjusted for inflation, real teacher pay is decreasing as private-sector salaries are on the rise.”

• The average salary for recent science and engineering bachelor’s-degree recipients in 2003 was $40,900, ranging from $34,300 in the life sciences to $53,500 in engineering, according to the National Science Board’s 2008 report on science and engineering indicators.

• The national average salary for public school teachers in 2005-06 was $49,026. State average salaries ranged from those in California ($59,825), Connecticut ($59,304), and the District of Columbia ($59,000), at the high end, to those in South Dakota ($34,709), North Dakota ($37,764), and West Virginia ($38,284), at the low end (Rankings and Estimates 2006-2007, National Education Association).

• Median annual earnings (regardless of education) in science and engineering occupations were, collectively, $67,780 (National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators 2008).

Let’s do the math. A student with a degree in science or engineering can land a job in the science-related industries with a starting salary of more than $50,000 and look forward to an annual salary of about $68,000 later on. Her college roommate—also armed with a degree in science, but headed for the high school classroom—can expect a starting salary of about $32,000 as a teacher and (if she stays out of the Dakotas) can anticipate earning around $49,000 a few years down the road.

This is ludicrous. Teaching is a respected profession and should not be considered community service. If your child were interested in pursuing a career in a STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—field, which career path would you suggest? Science teachers must be paid a competitive salary so that more talented STEM students will commit to teaching in the nation’s classrooms.

The best and the brightest are always in demand, and they can do the math. It’s no secret that this wage gap affects the ability of schools and districts to recruit and retain high-quality teachers of science. That’s why NSTA leaders have passed a resolution encouraging states, districts, and schools to explore differential pay systems that would encourage more qualified individuals to enter the science education profession.

Other powerful national organizations have joined with us to address the disparity in teacher pay. In the 2006 report “America’s Pressing Challenge—Building a Stronger Foundation,” the National Science Board, the oversight body for the National Science Foundation, maintained that “to attract and retain precollege science and mathematics teachers, resources must be provided to compensate teachers of mathematics, science, and technology comparably to similarly trained [science and engineering] professionals in other economic sectors.”

In its 2007 action plan to improve education in this area, the NSB again recommended that the country ensure students are taught by well-qualified and highly effective STEM teachers by “developing strategies for compensating STEM teachers at market rates.”

The American Federation of Teachers also has concluded it is time to examine the current teacher-pay system. Several years ago, the union approved a landmark resolution stating that it believes “it is time to explore viable, fair, and educationally sound teacher-compensation options that will raise salaries while contributing to efforts already under way to assure high-quality, well-prepared teachers for all students.” The AFT did not recommend abandoning the traditional salary schedule, but it encouraged local chapters to explore various teacher-compensation systems based on local conditions.

Our second 'Sputnik moment' has arrived, and we need to decide just what our future science education workforce will look like.

Lawmakers apparently concur. In 2007, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate, S. 114, that would provide grants to school districts to implement systemic reforms in the areas of teaching, assessment, school leadership, and administration. Grants could be used to recruit and retain highly effective teachers by using “incentives, including differential pay to reward high-performing teachers, teachers who choose to work in the most challenging schools within a local educational agency, and teachers with expertise in needed subject areas, such as mathematics, science, and special education.”

Other federal incentives can persuade students to become science and math teachers. The NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program offers awards of $10,000 annually, for up to three years, to students majoring in math- and science-related fields and who agree to teach in high-need schools. Teachers with federal loans can take advantage of up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness under the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. And many school districts and colleges are paying bonuses to midcareer professionals interested in becoming trained as teachers in high-need schools, with grants available through the federal Transition to Teaching program. These are all great programs, but they don’t go far enough to seriously address the teacher-shortage issues so many schools are facing.

Our second “Sputnik moment” has arrived, and we need to decide just what our future science education workforce will look like.

A February 2007 report for Congress from the Congressional Research Service cited statistics that approximately 44.7 percent of the high school students in biology/life science classes, 61.1 percent of those taking chemistry, and 66.5 percent in physics were being taught by teachers with no major and no certification in the respective field. Last year, the Business-Higher Education Forum estimated that the United States would need about 280,000 new teachers in science and math by 2015.

If we want the best and brightest students with degrees in STEM fields to teach, states and local districts must consider a plan that provides reasonable, marketplace-based compensation to highly qualified science teachers. If not, we can expect student achievement in the sciences to remain stagnant for another dozen years, regardless of the other reforms already in place. It’s time we return to the good old days—and soon.

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