Why is teaching one of the underpaid jobs in the United States?

Information verified correct on December 17th, 2020

Almost everyone remembers that one teacher who had a transformative impact on their lives, the teacher that made school exciting and interesting, and that genuinely cared. Teacher quality is the number one school-related factor for student achievement. This is an extremely important profession. Teachers literally have the future of the country in front of them every day. But the teaching profession is in turmoil.

The wage gap between teachers and others with the same level of education and experience is nearly 20% and growing. In some areas of the country, up to a quarter of teachers leave the profession annually. And about 1/5 of the workforce has to resort to a second job. The pandemic is likely making things worse. The exodus of some of our best and brightest teachers is that they realize they can’t stay in a life that they had dreamed of.

So why are teachers paid so little? And is there anything that can be done to change that? If you had gone through five, a bachelor’s and master’s, you’re still entering at thirty-six thousand. That’s considered high in the U.S. for example, in Mississippi, the lowest-paying state, a teacher with 20 years of experience makes around fifty thousand dollars. The average starting salary is just over forty thousand dollars. That’s not a living wage in many parts of the country.


Since the 1990s, the average inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have remained largely stagnant and even declined in the majority of states. That and the increasingly stressful environment have resulted in low retention rates, shortages, and national teachers strike around the country.

In 2018, 375 000 school employees walked out to demand increased education funding and better pay. The full effects of the pandemic remain to be seen, although experts say it’s not looking good. The American public school system, as we know it today, was invented about a hundred years ago. Before that, it was mostly men teaching.

Quite quickly, it was reconfigured into “women’s work.” And one of the big reasons was is that you could save money for the taxpayer. And so this kind of set the bedrock, the tone, and a sense that this was relatively low paid work.

In the 1960s, teaching paid women 15% points better than if they’d chosen another field. But at that time, options were limited. That’s not the case anymore. Still, teaching is overwhelmingly a female profession and has become more so over time.

Today, more than 3/4 of teachers are females. A lot of it boils down to the status of the line of work. There was this idea that “you don’t have to be that smart.” It’s not as as difficult as being an accountant, working with numbers, being a dentist, working with teeth.

Studies found that the weekly wage penalty for teachers has gotten worse over time. Today, men make about 27% less, and women make about 16% less than if they had chosen another profession with the same level of education and experience.

An international comparison with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that teachers in the U.S. make nearly 60% less than that of similarly educated professionals – lowest across all OECD countries.

The claims of a teacher pay gap are that teachers earn less than similarly educated private-sector workers. What this ignores, which in every other context we know very well, is there within any given educational category, there is a lot of differentiation in pay.

We all know today that people who graduate from a top college with a bachelor’s degree in engineering or another STEM field earn a great deal in the private sector. We also know that people who graduate with a liberal arts degree aren’t going to earn quite so much.

There’s no one answer to this question. There’s not a national answer to this question because salary levels differ and markets differ.

As an example, in Florida, there are schools that train engineers, and there are a lot of jobs that actually the salary levels there for engineers are lower salaries in Massachusetts for teachers, as an example, are two or three times higher than salaries in Arizona. In most localities, we find teachers significantly under the family living wage.

The profession has been known to have great benefits, according to Biggs, twice as generous as for the average private-sector worker. But studies show that teachers only receive their pension if they stay in the profession for 25 years or more, and only 1/4 reached a break-even point on total contribution and interest.

Weekly wages actually really matter because you can’t pay your rent or pay for your food from your benefits. Income mobility is another source of contention. Unless a teacher moves to a higher paying state, wages only increase one to two percent per year. If you’re doing really well in the private industry, you’ll be eligible for a raise, or you’re going to shift companies.

We end up sort of stuck in the profession as the only way to kind of substantially increase your salary is to leave the profession.

Raising teacher quality is the №1 driver to improve student achievement, and the U.S. is falling behind its international counterparts. It’s one of our highest ideals that we’re going to make adequate investments in all of the public education so that each and every kid in this country is able to get a good and decent education. And we’re falling short of those promises.

But increasing teacher salaries seem unlikely at the moment. Even at times when education spending increased, it still didn’t impact salaries. On top of that, there are a lot of teachers out there. In fact, about 3.5 million.

It’s been hard to tackle teacher compensation right now because there’s so low to start with that there’s always this feeling that any solution, somebody loses. So how do you get out of these zero-sum winners and losers kind of situation?

To close the EPI teacher compensation gap, researchers estimate that it would cost roughly $21 billion. The CARES Act included $13.2 billion in direct funding for K-12 public education, but that was less than 2% of total public education funding. And additional relief from Congress is uncertain at the moment.

One viable solution to solve this is by creating leadership roles. In Washington, D.C., for example, teachers can make up one hundred and thirty thousand dollars.

The way they funded that was a first. They got outside support, transport, and helped to fund the transition to a new salary structure. Then they transitioned to a new salary structure where they paid the teachers that did the most and worked on the toughest assignments significantly more. They freed it up by reducing staff. Also, in the salary structures, it means probably giving less money for every additional year and linking the raises instead of changing roles. Experience matters, but experience matters if it’s leading to good teaching.

Washington, D.C. is just one of the over 13 500 school districts in the U.S., while The Red for Ed Movement resulted in 15 states increasing salaries. A complete overhaul of the profession’s pay structure, such as the one in Washington, D.C., could take a long time, money, and resistance. People get into teaching, really do get into it for some very altruistic notions. For this to be a sustainable profession, we have to build a model that’s financially sustainable for people.

Otherwise, what will be is a revolving door profession where people come in, hang out as long as they can, and then leave to make money. And that’s not what we want. We know that the best teachers come from experience, they come from commitment, and they come from the willingness to stay, and really learn about the communities, learn their curriculum, learn their craft.

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