My mother was a teacher. She taught first-graders for several years and enjoyed it. She even included her first-graders in her wedding, a choice she has never seemed to regret. Now, many years later, she still talks happily about her students.

She was a resourceful and determined teacher. After leaving her school, she taught us kids at home. I remember watching her as she organized her school supplies, ordered curriculum, and set up her little classroom to her liking. She enthusiastically worked to make sure that we were engaged and learning.

Some days, she succeeded. We happily chugged along in our studies, flying through our work, our brains busily soaking up the knowledge we fed them.

Other days, it was more like torture. Miserable children sat at their places, pencils lounging between young fingers. Our eyes were anywhere but on our schoolwork. My mother exerted every trick that she knew to make us concentrate and accomplish our tasks for the day.

Whether it was a good school day or a bad school day, it required a lot from my mama.

And that’s true of all teachers, no matter the age of their students. Whether things are going well or life has hit the fan in their classroom, it takes a lot of work, patience, and ingenuity to get through each day.

In addition to the energy their job requires, teachers have a huge responsibility. They have to be a good role model to their students; they have to handle classroom drama and disputes quickly and effectively; they have to make sure that their students are engaged and growing regardless of individual personalities or learning preferences.

And it’s a big job.

Great teachers are priceless…but of course, they do have to be paid. Which brings us to the never-ending debate of “how much” this big job is worth.

Especially in the public school system, the topic of teacher salaries is ever-present.

How much should a teacher be paid? Many people think that they’re paid too much. Others suggest that the salary is far too little. Some don’t have an answer at all; they just watch from the sidelines as the argument bounces back and forth like an overtired tennis ball.

The Facts Aren’t Plain or Simple

The “Great Teacher Salary Debate” is far from straightforward. Many factors influence public opinion about teacher salaries, complicate efforts to change salaries across the board, and keep the never-ending debate alive. Here are a few:

  • Teacher salaries—and average incomes in general—vary widely by state. For instance, according to the World Population Review, the highest teacher salary is in New York, at $85k per year. Meanwhile, Mississippi has the lowest salary at $45k per year. Such large salary discrepancies can complicate an already-cloudy issue. What constitutes a “living wage” in one part of the country is poverty-level in other parts.
  • Currently, there is a teacher shortage. Supply and demand typically drive prices up, including salaries. The University of San Diego notes, “Teacher turnover is now reportedly twice as high in the U.S. as in many other countries, including high-performing nations such as Finland and Singapore.” While there are teacher shortages nationwide, these shortages are especially evident in certain states. Fresno Pacific University reports that the worst shortages are in California, Nevada, Washington, Indiana, Arizona, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. This scarcity of qualified candidates complicates the teacher salary issue.
  • As Career Trend notes, teacher compensation is also influenced by the teacher’s level of education and the grade level they teach. Generally speaking, higher education equals higher pay. This adds a whole new dimension to the teacher salary debate, since starting pay isn’t necessarily the same across the board, even in the same state.

The Debate

Milton Friedman once said, “With respect to teachers’ salaries…poor teachers are grossly overpaid and good teachers grossly underpaid. Salary schedules tend to be uniform and determined far more by seniority.”

Friedman alluded to the nuance required of a successful teacher pay scale. Unfortunately, balance and nuance don’t seem to be key features in the mainstream debate over teacher salary.

Raise the Pay!

Supporters of upping teacher salaries often point to relatively lower wages in the face of inflation.

“The country’s roughly 3.2 million full-time public-school teachers (kindergarten through high school) are experiencing some of the worst wage stagnation of any profession, earning less on average, in inflation-­adjusted dollars, than they did in 1990, according to Department of Education (DOE) data,” proclaims Time Magazine.

Time isn’t the only major news organization advocating for teachers in the salary department. U.S. News notes that, as of 2018, “…teachers are paid 21 percent less than similarly educated and experienced professionals. The so-called ‘teacher pay gap’ reached an all-time high in 2018, the institute’s experts have said, exacerbated by the gender gap in wages.” acknowledges this issue as well, noting that to economists, the current trends in pay declines spell trouble. When compared side by side, teacher salaries and those of other college graduates don’t appear to be comparable. “[Economist Sylvia Allegretto’s] research, based on data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicates that while educator pay has declined about $30 a week, the pay for graduates in other professions has increased approximately $124 a week. This difference in pay is what Allegretto calls the ‘teacher pay gap.’”

For many Americans, it’s time to reevaluate teachers’ salaries and pay them their due. The big question is how to accomplish this in today’s current education climate.

It’s Enough!

On the other side of the debate, City Journal suggests that teachers are paid well for their chosen profession. “…the average teacher already enjoys market-level wages plus retirement benefits vastly exceeding those of private-sector workers….Most commentary on teacher pay begins and ends with the observation that public school teachers earn lower salaries than the average college graduate. This is true, but in what other context do we assume that every occupation requiring a college degree should get paid the same? Engineers make about 25 percent more than accountants, but ‘underpaid’ accountants are not demonstrating in the streets.”

Those who believe that teachers are already paid enough for their work look at the situation in an entirely different way than those on the other side of the argument. Aside from their base pay, teachers receive perks of being a government employee, such as generous benefits and healthcare. Advocates for keeping teaching salaries as-is see these benefits as extra pay.

U.S. News recognizes that teachers enjoy good benefits, receiving roughly 52 percent higher compensation than comparable private-sector employees. The news site argues that these benefits should be taken into consideration when salary is up for debate. U.S.News then notes, “Teachers may appear underpaid because they receive lower salaries than the typical college graduate. However, prospective teachers are predominantly drawn from the bottom third of their college graduating class. Compared with those of college graduates with similar skills, teachers’ average annual salaries of around $55,000 are about right.”

Another point to consider is that education is not as rigorous as other degree paths, impacting the degree’s future economic value.

When looking at the situation through data such as this, it’s easy to understand this point of view as well. Putting the two points of view together—overpaid or underpaid—it’s not an open and shut case. Conflicting statistics, opposing data, and strong arguments mark this battle as anything but over.

Let’s Compare

Just for argument’s sake, let’s take a brief look at how teaching salaries do hold up against comparable careers. (This isn’t a straightforward comparison. Many variables can affect the hard data and the evaluation method.)

PracticalAdultInsights addresses one important variable: “Teacher pay is relatively high in terms of per-hour payment, if a minimal amount of work and effort is assumed. Many teachers, however, spend extensive periods of time at home [preparing for class]…If all of this time is taken into account, the relative worth of teacher salaries can diminish a great deal.”

The two factors brought up earlier also play a part: location and the teacher’s level of education. These variables also complicate a fair and comparable analysis and must be compensated for to get an accurate average, making a wide margin of error likely.

With these variables in mind for the sake of balance, let’s check out some numbers.

“In our 2020 Rankings and Estimates, NEA found that the national average teacher salary is $63,645,” reports the National Education Association. “…The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) notes that comparable professionals with similar education earn higher salaries. Nationally, teachers earn 19% less than similarly skilled and educated professionals. This ‘teaching penalty’ has increased significantly over the 20 plus years, from 6% in 1996 to 19% in 2019.”

The policy journal National Affairs takes issue with the EPI, pointing to several problems with the NEA’s evaluation methods. “Alternative measures of skill indicate how fragile EPI’s results are,” National Affairs explains. “Once again, there is significant variation in annual salaries even among jobs with similar skill requirements. Only half of occupations are paid within 10% of what their profession’s BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics] grade predicts. In other words, it’s normal for occupational salaries to be above or below what occupational skill requirements might predict, and we could hardly assume that every deviation is evidence that an occupation is improperly paid.” The journal continues to lay out a large list of problems with the EPI.

But is the NEA the only group concerned with the teacher pay gap? According to PayScale, that answer is no. “The average earnings of workers with at least a four-year college degree are more than 50 percent higher than teachers’ average earnings. When comparing the salaries of teachers with graduate degrees to other professionals, the figures are even more alarming. When PayScale examined Graduate Degrees by Salary Potential, education jobs came in toward the bottom across the board. Educators with doctoral degrees began with an average pay of $61,300 (rank 155th) and those with master’s degrees started with an average salary of $43,900 (rank 199).”

Let’s Recap

There is evidence on both sides of the coin. Teachers work extremely hard, often spend lots of extra time working for their students outside regular school hours, and literally hold the future of our country in their classrooms. On the other hand, as government workers, teachers have fairly good benefits, which can help to supplement their base pay.

One possible solution is a merit-paid salary system. We explored this concept in a recent article about the one-size-fits-all approach often seen in schools today. In the article, educator and former school board member Dr. Karen Hiltz explained, ‘“I was at a meeting of administrators and teachers who were talking about the pay scale….So I’m sitting there listening, and I said, ‘Well, have you ever thought of, maybe, pay banding? Or a performance-based pay scale?’”

As a concept, this idea seems worthy of exploration so effective teachers can receive the pay they so richly deserve.

What do you think? Should teachers be paid more or is the problem blown out of proportion? Is it a national crisis or more of a local issue? And finally—how should the current teacher shortage impact what we’re willing to pay for good teachers?

If you’re a teacher, drop us a line at to share your experience with pay and benefits in your state. What do people need to know about the finances of teaching?

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