Teacher Pay Penalty Reaches Record High. What’s at Stake?

Education Research

Teacher Pay Penalty Reaches Record High. What’s at Stake?

Teachers in the U.S. earn about 76.5 cents on the dollar compared to similar professionals who have bachelor’s degrees, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Aug 22, 2022

Teacher Pay Penalty Reaches Record High. What’s at Stake?

The disparity between what teachers are paid and what their peers in other, comparable professions earn has reached an all-time high, according to findings published this month by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

For decades—indeed, almost every year since the EPI first began documenting the teacher pay penalty in 1996—the pay of teachers has slipped further behind that of their non-teacher counterparts, adjusted for education, experience and demographics.

In 2020 and 2021, the two years whose data has been newly considered in this most recent EPI report, that gap reached new heights, with teachers earning 23.5 percent less than their professional peers. (The two data sources for this analysis come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

What that means is that teachers in the United States earn, on average, about 76.5 cents on the dollar compared to similar professionals who have bachelor’s degrees.

The financial penalty for teaching is significantly steeper for men, at 35.2 percent, than for women, at 17.1 percent. This is likely part of the reason that the gender makeup of the field has changed little in recent decades.

The state-by-state breakdown reveals stark differences as well. In no state are teachers paid better than or equal to similarly qualified professionals in that same state. But in Rhode Island, Wyoming and New Jersey, the disparity is less glaring, with a difference under 5 percent.

In Colorado, the gap is widest, at 35.9 percent. Oklahoma, Virginia and Arizona—notably, some of the states whose teachers went on strike in 2018—are not far behind.

It is inevitable that there will be implications for the teaching profession in those states, says Sylvia Allegretto, author of the report and an EPI research associate. After all, teachers in those states are making just two-thirds of the pay of their peers. And in 24 other states, the relative teacher wage penalty exceeds 20 percent.

“It’s hard to imagine, with pay gaps this high, that you’re able to retain teachers during economic hard times, when they can get other jobs,” Allegretto tells EdSurge. “It’s hard to imagine the best and brightest today are choosing this career when they know this is happening—they know what happens if you choose this career.”

And the education field can hardly afford to lose more teachers, Allegretto notes. Pointing to the frequent headlines in recent months about school staff shortages and vacancies, along with lower enrollment in teacher prep programs, she says those issues will only become worse if nothing is done to make teaching a more attractive profession.

“Teaching is one of the most consequential professions of all professions,” Allegretto says. “Teachers have the future of the country in front of them every day.”

She adds: “We have this idea that we have to pay CEOs millions and millions of dollars to do their jobs. Somehow we think we don’t need to invest in teachers.”

The EPI analysis does account for the fact that teachers typically get better workplace benefits than other professionals, particularly for health insurance and retirement plans. The most recent data show that teachers’ benefits advantage has reached new heights as well—9.3 percent better than comparable professionals—but not nearly enough to offset the wage penalty. Even with benefits factored in, the total compensation penalty for teachers exceeds 14 percent.

For the negative headlines around the teaching profession to change, Allegretto argues, the teaching profession itself will need to change—and fast.

“I can’t see anything more important,” she says. “These students that are sitting in classrooms today are the future workers in this country. That’s an investment that needs to be taken seriously.”

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