Report | Education

The Teaching Penalty: An update through 2010

Issue Brief #298

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Effective teachers are demonstrably the most important resource schools have for improving the academic success of their students (Hanushek and Rivkin 2006; Rice 2003). Yet for many school leaders, recruiting and retaining talented and effective classroom teachers remains an uphill battle. For decades, a small and declining fraction of the most cognitively skilled graduates have elected to enter the teaching profession (Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab 2004), while rigorous national standards and school-based accountability for student performance have pushed the demand for talented teachers to an all-time high.

Whether teacher salaries are sufficient to attract the best graduates into teaching remains an open question (Bacolod 2007; Stronge, Gareis, and Little 2006; Moulthrop, Calegari, and Eggers 2005), but there is little doubt that the recent fiscal crisis in the states has reenergized the debate over teacher compensation. Many commentators have suggested that teacher salaries and benefits are too high, and that downsizing is necessary to keep public budgets at a sustainable level. Others have argued for a radical restructuring of teacher pay, most notably linking pay increases to performance (Leigh and Mead 2005; Gordon, Kane, and Staiger 2006; and Solmon and Podgursky 2000). As this debate proceeds, sound evidence on the comparability of teacher pay is critical to ensuring we maintain and improve the quality of the teaching force in the United States.

In the EPI study, How Does Teacher Pay Compare? (Allegretto, Corcoran, and Mishel 2004), we contributed to this evidence by examining trends in the relative weekly earnings of elementary and secondary school teachers. We found that the average weekly pay of teachers in 2003 was nearly 14% below that of workers with similar education and work experience, a gap only minimally offset by the better nonwage benefits in teaching. Teacher earnings have fallen below that of the average college graduate in recent decades, losing considerable ground during the late 1990s, as earnings of college graduates grew 11% relative to the much lower 0.8% growth in teacher earnings.