Teacher compensation has emerged as a major issue in efforts to strengthen the teaching profession and boost student learning.
Experts have argued that relatively low earnings pose an impediment to recruiting top-notch candidates and retaining talented veterans. The challenges may be especially severe in such fields as mathematics and science, where jobs in the private sector can command particularly high wages.
Although analysts have repeatedly attempted to examine the competitiveness of teacher pay, a variety of factors complicate this line of research. Nuances include whether teachers are nine-month or 12-month workers, whether fringe benefits should be considered in addition to salary, and whether to analyze hourly, weekly, or annual pay.
But perhaps the most basic and important consideration is how to determine “comparable” salaries.
In the real estate market, smart buyers and sellers base their decisions on the prices of comparable properties. In much the same way, gauging teacher compensation requires identifying relevant comparison groups—occupations against which teacher salaries are evaluated.
An original analysis by the EPE Research Center finds that public school teachers nationwide make 88 cents for every dollar earned in 16 comparable occupations. Ten states reach or surpass the pay-parity line, meaning teachers earn at least as much as comparable workers.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008
Studies have chosen different routes, matching teachers against such classic professions as law and medicine, occupations with similar education or skill requirements, workers with a college degree, and even the labor force as a whole.
Not surprisingly, the lack of consensus has produced studies with mixed results. Teachers can appear to be well compensated based on certain comparisons, but underpaid based on others.
Yet there is one point of agreement: Very little is known about the competitiveness of teacher salaries relative to those of other occupations within individual states.
Explaining State Patterns
• Accountants and auditors
• Architects, except naval
• Archivists, curators, and museum technicians
• Compliance officers, except agriculture, construction, health and safety, and transportation
• Computer programmers
• Conservation scientists and foresters
• Editors, news analysts, reporters, and correspondents
• Human-resources, training, and laborrelations specialists
• Insurance underwriters
• Occupational therapists
• Other teachers and instructors (excludes preschool, K-12, and postsecondary)
• Physical therapists
• Registered nurses
• Technical writers
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008. Analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Occupational categories adapted from How Does Teacher Pay Compare? (Economic Policy Institute, 2004).
To shed light on this question, the EPE Research Center conducted an original analysis for Quality Counts 2008. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, or ACS, we indexed the earnings of public school teachers at the elementary and secondary levels against salaries for a set of 16 occupations with similar skill demands, identified in a 2004 study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute.
Pooling two years of ACS data for nearly 6 million individuals allowed the Research Center to explore pay patterns at both the national and state levels.
With a median salary of $50,784 in 2006 dollars, workers in our set of 16 comparable occupations outearn teachers by a notable margin. This difference corresponds to a pay-parity-index value of 88.0 for the nation, meaning that teachers earn about 88 cents to every dollar earned by comparable workers.
Perhaps more telling, we found the distribution of teacher salaries rather tightly constrained, while far more workers in the comparable occupations enjoy well-above-average incomes.
National data from the American Community Survey show that teachers enjoy higher median earnings ($44,690) than the average worker ($36,564). But with a median salary of $50,784, workers in 16 comparable occupations out earn the average teacher and also have a better chance of earning a very competitive salary.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008
In other words, there is less opportunity to earn a very competitive salary in teaching than in other lines of work.
State-level results show that the competitiveness of teacher salaries varies greatly across the nation.
In the states where teachers fare the worst, the parity index drops below 80, with North Carolina posting a score of 78.8 and Missouri, 79.3.
By contrast, teachers attain parity or earn more than workers in comparable occupations in 10 states, with the highest teacher-parity scores found in Montana (110.2) and Rhode Island (111.8).