Last year marked a deplorable record low pay level for American teachers. According to a new report, public school teachers earned 17% less than their college graduate peers who pursued different careers.
That’s the largest gap since 1979, when teachers’ weekly wages were 5.5% less than those of college graduate peers in other occupations. The analysis adjusted for education, age, gender, marital status, geographic region and race/ethnicity. When benefits including insurance and pensions were factored in, the gap was still 11.1%.
Relying on Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census data, the Economic Policy Institute researchers found that the depressing negative trends of the past only continued to get worse. Despite a worsening shortage of educators during a period of increasing demand, teacher pay relative to their peers continues to lag.
The pay gap is biggest for teachers between 35 and 44 years old, who earn 21.7% less than their peers in other lines of work: male teachers get 24.5% less and non-union teachers get 25.5% less. Male teachers have always suffered a huge pay gap, even in 1979 when they earned 22.1% less than comparable college graduates.
Note that this report compares weekly wages, so the shorter educational work year is not a factor. Also remember that this latest study of public school teacher compensation relied on government data, so bias in observation sampling is unlikely. It is difficult to find fault with the report's findings.
The painful pay inequity trend may have contributed to other continuing issues, too. Teacher turnover rates are rising, more new and mid-career incumbents leave the profession, fewer enter the field and more retire. Even while school systems plead for more diverse teachers, the majority are still white women. The lack of significant numbers of black, Latino and male educators continues to remain a serious problem.
Under these conditions of rising demand and short supply, conventional economic theory would expect a new higher equilibrium rate for classroom instructors. Teachers should be experiencing steady strong pay increases like those seen in the relatively prosperous health care and specialized STEM occupations. Yet, supply and demand economics seem to fail teachers. It is unclear why the free open market for labor is not operating as it should for educators.
Although public school teachers earned within 2% of other professionals few decades ago, their earnings have taken a severe tumble into steady relative decline. Teacher compensation that used to rate about a B- grade now struggles to stay around a D level, it seems, even when scored "on the curve." All else being equal, teachers today are considered worth less and less to the public bodies who employ them, even though their profession remains one of the most unionized in America.
If teaching is such a valuable field, why has this happened? Their occupation has not been technologically obsolesced, outsourced or off-shored. Are educators a unique self-selecting population more focused on intrinsic rewards than on economic compensation? Perhaps they are either immune or indifferent to monetary challenges. Could the quality of teachers be so bad that they are only paid the little they deserve? Or is it hard to justify paying relatively good money to classroom instructors after years of cumulative deterioration in the excellence of American educational results? Are school boards more tightfisted than ever? Have teachers' unions failed their members? Some or perhaps all of those reasons might be true.
Having allowed my teaching certificate to expire when more profitable activities drew my attention, I'm no longer close enough to the action to have an informed opinion. On the other hand, maybe that's exactly what has happened to the rest, too.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience in corporate HR management and all-industry consulting throughout the continent. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and frequent expert witness, Jim testified in many reasonable executive compensation cases. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
Image "Teachers pay based on experience" by Quite Peculiar, courtesy of Creative Commons