The disparity between what teachers are paid and what their peers earn in other comparable professions has reached an all-time high, according to findings released this month by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
For decades—in fact, almost every year since the EPI began documenting the teacher salary penalty in 1996—teacher salaries have fallen further relative to their non-teaching counterparts, adjusted for education, experience and demographics.
In 2020 and 2021, the two years whose data have been newly taken into account in the latter ENP report, this gap has reached new heights, with teachers earning 23.5% less than their professional peers. (Both data sources for this analysis are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
This means that teachers in the United States earn, on average, about 76.5 cents on the dollar compared to similar professionals with bachelor’s degrees.
The financial penalty for education is significantly higher for men, at 35.2%, than for women, at 17.1%. This is probably part of the reason why the gender composition of the field has changed little in recent decades.
The state-by-state distribution also reveals strong differences. In no state are teachers paid more or equal to professionals of the same qualification in that same state. But in Rhode Island, Wyoming and New Jersey, the disparity is less stark, with a difference of less than 5%.
In Colorado, the gap is widest, at 35.9%. Oklahoma, Virginia and Arizona, including some of the states whose teachers went on strike in 2018 – are not far behind.
There are bound to be implications for the teaching profession in these states, says Sylvia Allegretto, report author and EPI research associate. After all, teachers in these states earn only two-thirds of the salary of their peers. And in 24 other states, the relative salary penalty for teachers exceeds 20%.
“It’s hard to imagine, with such high pay gaps, that you can retain teachers during tough economic times when they can find other jobs,” Allegretto told EdSurge. “It’s hard to imagine today’s best and brightest choosing this career when they know it’s happening – they know what happens if you choose this career.”
And the education field can ill afford to lose more teachers, Allegretto notes. Highlighting frequent headlines in recent months on faculty shortages and vacanciesin the same way declining enrollment in teacher preparation programsshe says, these problems will only get worse if nothing is done to make teaching more attractive.
“Teaching is one of the most important professions of all professions,” says Allegretto. “Teachers have the future of the country before 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 takes into account that teachers generally enjoy better benefits than other professionals, especially for health insurance and pension plans. The most recent data shows that teachers’ benefits advantage has also reached new highs – 9.3% better than comparable professionals – but not enough to offset the salary penalty. Even with benefits taken into account, the total compensation penalty for teachers exceeds 14%.
For the negative headlines around the teaching profession to change, Allegretto argues, the teaching profession itself will have to change — and fast.
“I don’t see anything more important,” she said. “These students who sit in classrooms today are the future workers of this country. It is an investment that should be taken seriously.