October 26, 2023

Jan Resseger: Sylvia Allegretto Documents Large and Persistent Teacher Pay Penalty

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Jan Resseger looks at the most current research on the lag in teacher pay. Reposted with permission. 

In our society, teaching is not a high status position.  It used to be considered women’s work, probably still is by many people.  How wonderful it would be if we had fully transcended the cruelty of the old joke: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, teach gym.” But we haven’t. I regularly hear legislators in my state explaining that if someone who knew what he was doing were put in charge, teachers would be forced to improve test scores immediately. The implication, of course, is that teaching is simply a matter of the production of test scores, and teachers don’t produce.

The tragedy of this kind of thinking is that the same teachers whom people attack and insult are the human beings to whom we trust the formation of our children. The opinion polls tell us that we handle this contradiction by learning to know, respect, and appreciate our own child’s teacher even as we fail to protest the barrage of attacks on teachers in general.

We forget to consider that teaching is a relentlessly hard job.  Teachers work with masses of children and adolescents all day without much of a break. The pressure is relentless. Regents’ Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Arizona State University and the past president of both the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the Division of Educational Psychology of the American Psychological Association, David Berliner describes just some of the complexity of a teacher’s day:

“A physician usually works with one patient at a time, while a teacher serves 25, 30 or in places like Los Angeles and other large cities, they may be serving 35 or more youngsters simultaneously..(T)eachers have been found to make about .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching… (A) researcher estimated that teachers’ decisions numbered about 1,500 per day. Decision fatigue is among the many reasons teachers are tired after what some critics call a short work day, forgetting or ignoring the enormous amount of time needed for preparation, for grading papers and homework, and for filling out bureaucratic forms and attending school meetings.”

Teachers know how to build trusting relationships with their students and to help students respect each other while they all engage with their academic work. One of the best writers about teaching , the late Mike Rose published my favorite definition of excellent teaching based on years of observing teachers in their classrooms: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities… The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”

In the introduction to her annual report on the teacher pay penalty, published last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Sylvia Allegretto acknowledges the challenges teachers face: “Teachers have one of the most consequential jobs in the country—they have the future of the U.S. in front of them every day. But teaching is becoming a less appealing career choice for new college graduates. Not only are levels of compensation low, but teaching is becoming increasingly stressful as teachers are forced to navigate battles over curriculum and COVID-19 related mandates as well as rising incidence of violence in schools. Low pay makes recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers difficult.

Here are Allegretto’s conclusions about the trend in teachers’ wages and compensation through 2022:

  • “The pay penalty for teachers—the gap between the weekly wages of teachers and college graduates working in other professions—grew to a record 26.4% in 2022, a significant increase from 6.1% in 1996.
  • “Although teachers tend to receive better benefits packages than other professionals do, this advantage is not large enough to offset the growing wage penalty for teachers.
  • “On average, teachers earned 73.6 cents for every dollar that other professionals made in 2022. This is much less than the 93.9 cents on the dollar they made in 1996.”

Allegretto explains: “Because public school teachers must attain at least a bachelor’s degree to teach in the U.S., this research compares teachers with college graduates working in other professions… Over the past two decades, the weekly wages and total compensation of public school teachers have fallen further and further behind… Recent high inflation has significantly reduced the average weekly wages of teachers but has had less of an effect on other college graduates… The erosion of  relative weekly wages for teachers continued apace in 2022.” “Teachers generally receive a higher share of their total compensation as benefits than other professionals do, partially offsetting the weekly wage penalty.”  But, “the benefits advantage for teachers has not been enough to offset the growing wage penalty.”

Inflation has been a significant factor recently: “From 2021 to 2022, real wages for teachers fell by a bit more than inflation (8.8% vs 8.1%), meaning that the lion’s share of the decline was due to inflation, not a large drop in nominal wages. Regardless, the buying power of teachers took a big hit…. This dynamic is likely explained (at least in part) because teachers’ wages are often set by long-term union contracts and dependent on government budgets. In contrast, the private sector can often respond more quickly to improving or deteriorating economic conditions by adjusting wages. Other college graduates were able to garner an increase in nominal wages to keep pace with inflation….”

In 31 states, in 2022 the relative teacher wage penalty was greater than 20 percent.  The five states with the greatest relative teacher wage penalty in 2022 were Colorado at 37.4 percent, Arizona at 33.2 percent, Virginia at 32.1 percent, Oklahoma at 31.8 percent, and Alabama at 30.9 percent. You can check your state’s relative teacher wage penalty on page 8 of Allegretto’s report.

Allegretto concludes: “One of our nation’s highest ideals is the promise to educate every child without regard to means. In many respects, we have always fallen short on that promise. And there are many issues to be addressed around public education and its funding… But one thing is for sure. A world-class public educational system cannot be accomplished without the best and the brightest heading our classrooms. And it cannot be done on the cheap.”

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