Teacher Pay: Half-truths and Reality

Benjamin Franklin once famously quipped, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Today, however, we can alter that to “death, taxes, and a slew of myths about teacher pay.”

Leading the half-truth brigade, on March 4, a headline in My eLearning World read, “New Teachers Are Earning 20% Less Than They Were 20 Years Ago.” The piece informs us that if starting salaries for new teachers had kept pace with inflation over the last 20 years, a teacher just starting out would currently be making $53,303 per year. Instead, using data from the National Education Association, the website asserts that the average annual income for a new teacher is $42,844.

The California School Boards Association laments that California teachers make more than the national average but less than a living wage.

A National Center for Educational Statistics table shows that, using constant dollars, the average teacher salary in 2022 was $66,397, compared to $72,050 in 2010.

However, the above assertions are essentially meaningless when assessing what teachers really make. As Just Facts notes, in the 2021–22 school year, the average school teacher in the U.S. made $66,397 in salary but received another $34,090 in benefits (such as health insurance, paid leave, and pensions) for a total compensation of $100,487.

Also, importantly, full-time public school teachers work an average of 1,490 hours per year, including time spent on lesson preparation, test construction, and grading, providing extra help to students, coaching, and other activities, while their counterparts in private industry work an average of 2,045 hours per year, or about 37% more than public school teachers.

Overall, with various perks included, a teacher makes an average of $68.85 per hour, whereas a private sector worker makes about $40 per hour.

That said, there are legitimate ways—and good reasons for—raising some teachers’ salaries. Whereas private sector employees are paid via merit, teachers are part of a teacher union-mandated industrial-style “step and column” salary regimen, which treats them as interchangeable parts. They get salary increases for the number of years they work and for taking (frequently meaningless) professional development classes. Great teachers are worth more—a lot more—and should receive higher pay than their less capable colleagues. But they don’t. Also, if a district is short on science teachers, it’s only logical to pay them more than other teachers whose fields are overpopulated. But stifling union contracts don’t allow for this kind of flexibility.

Last year, teacher union intransigence on salary issues was front and center in California, where there is a dearth of experienced teachers at high-poverty schools. In fact, a large body of research shows that teacher quality is more influential than every other factor in a student’s education—that includes a student’s socioeconomic background, language abilities, school size, and class size. At high-poverty schools, where students are more likely to be achieving below grade level, a quality teacher can make a huge difference.

However, the California Teachers Association is a roadblock. The teacher union’s policy handbook explains that school districts must use a single salary schedule to pay all teachers at all schools the same wages based on their experience and education levels. “The model is widely accepted because it is seen as less arbitrary, clearer, and more predictable. Because of these factors, the single salary schedule will continue to be the foundation of educators’ pay.”

The main problem with the single-salary pay schedule is that it leads to “wage compression,” whereby the salaries of lower-paid teachers are raised above the market rate, with the increase offset by reducing the pay of the most productive ones. Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute takes it one step further, claiming collective bargaining agreements (CBA) hurt the bottom line of all teachers. According to Petrilli, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers—$64,500 on average versus $57,500.” Petrilli’s study was conducted in 2011, and research by Michael Lovenheim in 2009 and Andrew Coulson in 2010 bore similar results. Also, University of California San Diego professor Augustina Pagalayan reported in 2018 that CBAs do not improve teacher pay.

Another way to increase pay is for teachers to teach larger classes. Fewer teachers translate to a larger piece of the pie for those who remain in the field. Education reformer Chad Aldeman recently reported that schools have added teachers nationwide even as they serve fewer students. He explains that between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022, public school enrollment was down 2.6%, but the number of teachers increased by 1.1%.

Nationally, class size has been shrinking over time. In fact, the student-to-teacher ratio has been reduced from 33:1 to 16:1 since 1921, and researcher and economics professor Benjamin Scafidi found that between 1950 and 2015, the number of teachers increased about 2.5 times as fast as the uptick in students. His study also revealed that other education employees—administrators, teacher aides, counselors, social workers, etc.—rose more than seven times the increase in students. But despite the staffing surge, students’ academic achievement has stagnated or fallen over the past several decades.

According to the latest data from 2019, Scafidi’s numbers are still accurate. As Heritage Foundation scholar Lindsay Burke notes, in public schools across America today, “teachers make up just half of all education jobs.

Similarly, the Reason Foundation maintains that public school staffing growth far exceeds student enrollment growth. A prevailing trend across states is to add new staff, regardless of enrollment levels. “Between 2002 and 2020, staffing growth exceeded student growth in 39 of 50 states. Much of this can be attributed to growth in non-teaching staff, which increased by 20% across states. Even in states with declining student populations, public school staffing is still increasing. For instance, Connecticut’s staff grew by 14.1% while its student enrollment declined by 8.2%.”

Whatever. The sun will rise in the east tomorrow, and a story will circulate that laments the plight of the overworked and underpaid teacher.

*   *   *

Larry Sand, a retired 28-year classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Mature female teacher grading exam papers at high school.