We know that teachers are the most important school-level factor that contributes to student achievement. And we’ve all heard that teacher pay is low. But how low is it, exactly? And does that really affect the supply of people entering the teaching profession?
First and foremost, teachers don’t teach for the money. A recent Center on Education Policy survey found that only 1% of teachers listed “earning potential” as a significant factor for entering the teaching field, compared with 68% of teachers who said they taught to “make a difference in students’ lives.” However, the number of high school graduates who are interested in a career in education has dropped since 2010 to only 5%, according to ACT, despite an anticipated increase in demand for new teachers.
If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into teaching, though, improved salaries might help. Teacher salaries lag 23% below those of all college graduates, and 17% below those of similar individuals, when comparing weekly salaries (some of this difference is explained by the gender gap – over 80% of teachers are female). Even when accounting for additional compensation, such as pensions and insurance, teacher salaries are 11% less than their peers. This is significantly different from the 1970s, at which point teachers actually earned more than the average of their peers.
Other countries with successful education systems treat their teachers as professionals. A recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures found that these countries recruit teachers from the best and brightest students, often provide free university-level training, and give teachers the autonomy to make decisions that lead to their students’ success. Teachers have career ladders in which they can mentor novice teachers and take leadership roles. Teachers in these systems often earn similar salaries as accountants and engineers.
Even if we don’t like to admit it, higher-earning professions are often more respected and revered. While the cause and effect in this scenario may be muddled, we assume that doctors deserve the pay they receive because they are smart and well-educated. Could we also assume that smart people enter the medical profession because they know they will be well-compensated and challenged in their professional life? Sure, they also want to help people be healthy, but I haven’t heard that argument come up in discussing doctors’ wages.
Teaching is not all about the money, but Economics 101 should have taught us that the world often boils down to supply and demand. If we want to increase the supply of high-quality teachers, we also have to increase their pay and respect. We need a system in which our teachers are well-trained, competent professionals for which they are fairly compensated so that our students are provided with the educations they deserve.