Teaching Profession

Schools Chiefs Lead The Way in Pay Trends

By Catherine Gewertz — June 23, 2004 8 min read
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New data from a survey of more than 500 school districts show the average salary of their superintendents has risen by more than 12 percent over the past decade in inflation-adjusted dollars, and that of their high school principals by more than 4 percent, while the average teacher salary declined by nearly 2 percent.

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More information on the “2003-2004 ERS National Survey of Salaries and Wages in Public Schools” is available from the Educational Research Service.

The salary survey of employees in precollegiate public schools also shows that the gap between teachers’ and superintendents’ salaries grew a bit wider in the same period. In 1993-94, the superintendents were paid on average 2.4 times as much as teachers. By 2003-04, the difference was 2.75 times.

The data come from the National Survey of Salaries and Wages in Public Schools and were released to Education Week this month by Educational Research Service as part of a research partnership.

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View the accompanying charts, “Salaries and Wages in Public Schools.”
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ERS, a nonprofit organization based in Arlington, Va., has been conducting the salary survey for 31 years. The data cover the pay of public school employees in 23 professional and 10 support positions, including bus drivers, secretaries, librarians, teachers, principals, district business directors, and superintendents.

The survey data track those employees’ salaries annually from 1993-94 to this past fall. Education Week adjusted the pay in each of those years into 2003 dollars to assess how earnings fared relative to the cost of living over time.

The ERS survey shows relationships between salary and a district’s enrollment, per-pupil spending, and location.

Because the fall 2003 findings were obtained from the survey responses of 527 nationally representative districts, which together have about 1.4 million employees, they “could be considered a comprehensive picture of salaries” paid to public school employees for a given year, or over time, according to ERS researchers. They caution that the data are not weighted to estimate national statistics, but they reflect the salaries only in the districts that responded to the survey.

The 527 districts that responded to the survey make up 4.7 percent of the nation’s 11,206 public school systems enrolling 300 or more students. Districts smaller than that were not surveyed.

The data, which ERS will release in a full report this summer, are designed primarily to enable districts to put their employees’ salaries into a national or regional context, assess their competitiveness in hiring, and analyze salary trends over time, ERS researchers said in a preliminary draft of the report.

Losing Ground

In looking at teachers’ pay, the data show that the mean of classroom teachers’ average salaries in the districts surveyed was $36,531 in 1993-94, and $45,646 in 2003-04. Education Week’s cost-of-living adjustment changes the 1993-94 figure to $46,517.

In real dollars, then, the average teacher salary fell by $871, or 1.87 percent, during the period studied.

Some of the decline in teacher pay could be driven by the retirement of more experienced teachers at the upper end of the pay scale, and their replacement with younger, lower-paid teachers, ERS researchers said.

Tom Mooney, a vice president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers and the president of its Ohio state affiliate, said he believes the decline was driven by insufficient resources and a lack of commitment in state and local governments to pay teachers more.

The AFT’s own research shows teachers are paid less than most white-collar private-sector employees.

The difference between teachers’ pay and superintendents’ pay could be even wider in urban areas, as big-city districts agree to higher salaries for talented superintendents to address chronically low student achievement, said Norm Fruchter, the director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

That willingness to seek cures for the ills of urban schools by compensating top officials has not been extended to teachers, Mr. Fruchter said, a situation he attributes to an underlying lack of respect for their profession.

While teachers’ actual salaries overall appear to have lost ground in the districts surveyed, the ERS data indicate that contract salaries for entry-level teachers have grown more than 14 percent in each of the five- year periods of the past decade, or by 30.6 percent overall, outpacing inflation by more than 3 percent. ERS researchers speculate that some states’ efforts to attract new teachers with higher pay might be fueling that trend.

Attracting good teachers is important, but retaining them is just as crucial, and too often overlooked in debates about teacher shortages, said Richard M. Ingersoll, an associate professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The field has traditionally “front-loaded” its salary scales, meaning that it pays newcomers relatively well and veterans relatively poorly, said Mr. Ingersoll, who studies the teaching profession. That pay structure sends the message that experience isn’t valued, and exacerbates turnover, he said.

A Decade’s Trends

The consumer price index rose by 27.3 percent over the past decade. The ERS data show that the salaries of some groups of public education employees fared better than others relative to the cost of living.

The salaries for central-office administrators rose 36.5 percent on average, significantly outpacing the CPI. The salaries of school administrators such as principals and assistant principals increased by 31.3 percent.

Pay for support personnel such as teachers’ aides, custodians, and bus drivers rose by 32.2 percent. Auxiliary personnel such as counselors, librarians, and nurses gained 28.6 percent. Teachers’ pay rose by 25 percent, falling short of the rise in the CPI.

John M. Forsyth, ERS’ president and director of research, said the data suggest the need for better compensation in public education.

“Relative to other professions requiring similar training, public school salaries are too low and … should be raised to levels that are professionally competitive and market- sensitive,” he said.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.- based American Association of School Administrators, which represents superintendents and is one of seven organizations that co-founded ERS, said he was gratified that administrators’ salaries have been rising. But he is pessimistic about the chances that their pay will ever rival that of private- sector jobs requiring similar skills.

“We never will pay our school leaders as much as the private sector,” Mr. Hunter said. "[In the public’s view], schools are important, but not that important.”

The data show a strong correlation between public school employees’ pay and the size of their school districts, as measured by student enrollment.

Superintendents’ average salaries, for instance, are $96,387 in districts enrolling 300 to 2,499 students; $117,839 in districts with 2,500 to 9,999 students; $140,435 in districts with 10,000 to 24,999 students; and $174,805 in those with 25,000 or more pupils.

Similar patterns emerge for some other public school employees, such as principals and subject-area supervisors, but don’t hold true for others. Bus drivers, custodians, and teachers, for instance, earn more in the middle-size districts surveyed than they do in the largest ones.

There were correlations between salaries, which make up the biggest part of school system budgets, and districts’ per-pupil spending.

Teachers in districts spending $9,000 or more per student earn $9,000 more annually than teachers who work in districts that spend less than $6,000 per pupil.

High school principals earn $16,200 more in the highest-spending districts than do their counterparts in the lowest-spending systems. Custodians earn $3 more per hour in the highest-spending districts than they do in the lowest- spending.

The pattern wasn’t as clear for superintendents, who earn more in the lowest-spending districts ($122,885) than they do in the second-highest- spending ($118,657).

Regional Differences

The data show some regional patterns in pay.

In general, public school employees are paid more in states in the Far West and Mideast regions. Central-office secretaries, for instance, earn $39,055 in the Far West, and $34,195 in the Mideast, compared with $27,104 in the Plains states and $26,844 in the Southwest.

Type of community also seems to influence pay, with large urban and suburban areas paying the most, and rural areas the least.

Superintendents in large urban districts, for instance, earned $175,344 in 2003-04, compared with $139,949 in medium urban districts, $148,201 in suburban, $108,542 in small-town districts, and $88,149 in rural ones. Teachers in the suburbs earned $50,844 on average—more than teachers made in any other type of community.

Superintendents’ salaries showed correlations with the district chiefs’ race and ethnicity. Hispanic superintendents in the districts surveyed averaged the highest salaries, followed by black superintendents, and then white superintendents.

ERS researchers said the gaps could be explained in part by the heavier distribution of minority superintendents in urban areas, where pay scales are higher. Mr. Hunter, of the AASA, said the pattern also could have emerged because many minority superintendents entered the field relatively recently, when contract salaries have been higher.

He also said the average pay of white superintendents could be lower because small, rural districts, where pay tends to be lower, are disproportionately run by white superintendents.

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