People Think Teachers Are Underpaid—Until You Tell Them How Much Teachers Earn

Aug 15, 2017

Nobody goes into teaching for the money. But are teachers actually underpaid? Depends how you ask.

Roughly six in 10 Americans believe teacher pay should increase, according to an Education Next poll released Tuesday that looks at public opinion on a variety of education topics.

Yet estimates of how much teachers earn are way off, it turns out. And when survey respondents were told what teachers actually get paid, far fewer supported a salary increase.

The national average salary for public school teachers was $58,064 in 2015-2016; average teacher salaries range from a low of $42,025 in South Dakota to a high of $77,957 in New York, according to an annual data set published by the National Center for Education Statistics

Survey respondents put the national average at $40,587—about 30% off the actual figure. Even respondents who actually worked as teachers underestimated average teacher pay by about 20%.

When the survey first asked respondents how they felt about teacher salaries, 14% said teacher pay should "increase greatly" and 47% felt it should "increase." Those numbers varied based on demographics and political ideology—but across the board, a majority in every group supported paying teachers more.

But after being told what teachers earn in a respondent's home state, most people instead felt teacher pay should remain the same. Overall, the share who felt teacher pay should "increase greatly" or "increase" dropped to 36%—a plunge of 25 percentage points.

Those off-base assumptions about teacher pay worry Martin West, a co-author of the report and associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “To the extent that the public has a falsely low impression of much teachers earn, that only makes it harder for us to attract talented individuals into the teaching profession,” he says.

Previous research has shown that, given the amount of education required to get hired, teachers are comparatively underpaid. The average weekly wages of public school teachers are 17% lower than other college-educated professionals, a 2015 study from the Economic Policy Institute found. That pay differential, many argue, keeps the brightest and best college graduates from going into teaching; it also makes it hard to keep people in the profession.

Critics of that line of thought, meanwhile, point out there's wide variation in the labor market value of certain college degrees, so the fact that teachers earn less than other college-educated professionals isn't evidence that they're underpaid.

The Education Next findings come on the heels of a recent survey from NPR that found many teachers are struggling to stay afloat on their student loan payments.

Regardless of whether you think U.S. teachers are compensated fairly, it is true that their pay has declined across the board. On average, teacher salaries have slipped 1.3% since 2000, after adjusting for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That average hides wide state-by-state discrepancies. Teacher salaries in Arizona, Indiana, and North Carolina have fallen at least 12%, for instance, while teachers in Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Wyoming have seen double-digit increases.

And teachers are falling further behind other careers. Remember that 17% pay differential between teachers and other college-educated professionals? Twenty-five years ago, the gap was just 1.8%.

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