When the Grass is Greener: A Case for Better Teacher Compensation

Authored by Dean Julius

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Pick up a copy of any local or state newspaper across the country in the past two years, and you’re likely to find an article discussing teacher shortages, national staffing challenges, or “The Great Resignation.” This isn’t endemic to education. Fields across the country are finding it hard to fill all of their open roles—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As of right now, there are nearly two open jobs for every unemployed person in the country. Filling an open role right now is like Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to find a Turbo-Man before Christmas in Jingle All the Way. It’s a struggle, and not just for K – 12 education. There’s plenty of debate about the reasons for this rise in resignations/retirements. One article in The Atlantic from last month—one I tend to agree with—articulates it well, “the Great Resignation isn’t really about quitting jobs; it’s about switching jobs . . . the elevated quit rate is largely the result of workers swapping employers to make more money. For this reason, we probably shouldn’t even call it the Great Resignation. It’s more like the Great Job Switcheroo.” These thoughts by Derek Thompson are related to and underscore one silver lining: unemployment numbers are on the decline, with Mississippi recently setting a record low for unemployment. Clearly, workers in general aren’t quitting in mass to do nothing instead. They’re looking for greener pastures, and this is particularly true of educators.

While these current unemployment numbers are positive, since the 2000s, the number of students enrolled in teacher training programs—or enrolling in college with the intention of becoming an educator—has declined by nearly a third, according to data from the Department of Education. Additionally, as noted in an article in The 74, graduation from these programs has also declined by 30%. These future employment realities are alarming. And the pandemic has only served to exacerbate this problem. The rate of retirement in the wake of the pandemic rose sharply nationwide, in addition to the amount of teachers leaving the workforce for other reasons. It’s hard to fill a workforce when not only current teachers are leaving but also future interest in the field declines dramatically. Furthermore, while education program enrollment is declining, interest in other fields is on the rise. Enrollment in other programs outside of education within the same period rose by nearly 30% per data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. We joke a lot in this profession that teachers are “underpaid and overworked,” but there is sad truth to the joke, as evidenced by a wealth of data post the Great Recession.

College students don’t appear to be pressing their luck to become teachers because there’s increasingly no “big bucks” in their future, current teachers are jumping ship for opportunities that offer more compensation, and veteran teachers are throwing in the towel for retirement. It’s a triple whammy not only for the educational system in our country, but also the kids whose futures depend on it. Side-note, if you’re up with the Press Your Luck metaphor I’m building here, respect.

But in all seriousness, one central issue facing prospective and current educators is the fact that wages for teachers have not just stagnated since 1990, they’ve withered. As an article in My eLearning World points out, “new teachers are earning nearly 11% less than they were about 30 years ago when accounting for inflation.” And to make things worse—as if teaching all day wasn’t challenging enough—nearly 20% of all teachers nationwide (1 of 6 teachers) are working second jobs to make ends meet according to data from Pew Research. For new teachers and teachers with less experience, this number is markedly higher, “Roughly one-third (32%) of teachers with one year or less of teaching experience had a non-school job over the summer break before the school year—a far larger share than that of public school teachers overall. By comparison, 20% of teachers with two to four years of experience took on summer employment . . . as did 17% of teachers with five to nine years of experience.” And this only accounts for summer employment, not what teachers may be doing during the school year to get by. Equally as alarming is the fact that this additional employment, either during the summer or during the year, can make up anywhere from 7 – 15% of a teachers total income. That’s a significant portion of a teacher’s annual earnings coming from a side hustle.

Additionally, according to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “While the rest of the world has prioritized teaching and learning, and is investing heavily in equity and teacher preparation, thirty-six U.S. states are spending less on education than before the Great Recession. Moreover, the report confirms the U.S. has fallen woefully behind in early childhood and career and technical education as well.” One aspect of this lagging behind comes in the form of paying teachers less. Teachers in the United States earn only around 60% of what other professionals (who are similarly educated) earn. Here’s a concrete example: a new teacher in Jackson Public Schools, according to the most recent pay scale, will earn $37,000—the national average salary for a new teacher is $41,700. According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a new hire across all professions nationally is $54,503. For a new teacher in Mississippi, that’s a huge difference in earnings, a nearly 40% difference in earnings to be precise. Granted, money and salary aren’t everything, and this data from Glassdoor doesn’t differentiate the fact that most educators are paid on a ten month schedule as opposed to a twelve month schedule; furthermore, Glassdoor is self-reported data, so it’s not as accurate a reflection of employee compensation as, say, data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. But if a hypothetical college student—one considering education as a career—can make, on average, 40% more doing literally anything but teaching, the non-monetary incentives for being a teacher, especially one in Mississippi, need to be incredibly high to match a salary reduction of this degree. I’d venture to guess that it’s rather enticing for a lot of current educators as well to look at other options, given the numbers.

It is rather encouraging to note that Governor Tate Reeves recently signed a bill ensuring that public school teachers in Mississippi will receive a raise of (on average) $5,100. This is the first time in twenty-five years teachers in this state have seen a substantial raise and it’s one of the largest in state history. It represents a 10% or better salary increase for a lot of public school teachers across the state, and it’s long overdue. This would put new teacher pay Mississippi just $200 shy of the national average. According to coverage of Wednesday’s bill passing by Emily Wagster Pettus of Associated Press, “The average teacher salary in Mississippi during the 2019-20 academic year was $46,843, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. That lagged behind the average of $55,205 for teachers in the sixteen states of the regional organization. The national average was $64,133.” Clearly, this bill’s passing will help decrease the gap between Mississippi teacher pay and the rest of the country, on average. However, some would argue this bill still falls short of keeping Mississippi competitive relative to other states—who are also working to raise educator salaries. Wherever one’s opinion might fall on that matter, waiting twenty-five years at a time for a meaningfully significant salary increase isn’t encouraging. It’s even less encouraging considering that wages in the field for new teachers have declined by 11% since the last time Mississippi teachers saw a similar raise.

It’s also important to consider, I believe, that student loan debt for borrowers upon graduation is an estimated $31,100, close to the starting salary of a new teacher in Mississippi before the passage of Wednesday’s bill. It goes a long way, when exiting higher education, knowing that it’s possible to bring home more than what one might owe in student loans. Granted, for many, myself included, the moratorium on student loan repayment during the pandemic has been a huge relief, allowing folks to save money they normally wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. In my case, that $300 monthly student loan payment, invested instead into the markets, returned well over the 0% student loan interest rate thanks to the moratorium. I’m not a financial advisor, but personally, I found this to be a much better decision than continuing to pay off student loans. Dave Ramsey might disagree. As they say, “do your own research.”

Salary and money, obviously, aren’t everything. But again, in a time when debt to income for college graduates is high—nearly $2 trillion (with a T) in total student loan debt across all borrowers—it makes sense that folks are leaving jobs in search of higher income. Especially considering that education, as a field, has seen a steady decline in earnings year over year. And many, especially in public schools, might not see another substantive increase in pay for another two decades, if history serves.

Likewise, it takes a lot of time, patience, and the guarantee of a raise to earn more money in a career where salaries aren’t exactly negotiable, even as a private school teacher. Unlike public schools with clear pay scales—relative to years of experience and degree qualifications—it’s not always transparent how to earn more, and the means with which to renegotiate salary are often equally inexplicit. In a moment when enrollment in schools, nationwide, is increasing while the amount of new teachers or prospective teachers enrolling in programs to educate is declining, it seems important, perhaps now more than ever, to create clear, more standardized means for educators to earn wages that feel commensurate with the vital work they provide society.

Office of Postsecondary education, “Title II Higher Education Act: Enrollment in Teacher Preparation Programs”

For example’s sake, and because I think this is the most concrete way to explain why this issue is worth our collective attention, let’s consider two teachers. We’ll call the first teacher Eve. She earns $45,000 a year working for a private school. She has multiple post-graduate degrees, and has been teaching for a decade. We’ll call our second teacher Adam. Bible school as a child paid dividends, y’all! Unlike Eve, Adam is new, he’s fresh out of undergraduate, and this is his first year in a small Mississippi private school.

Eve, would need a guaranteed 2% raise every year for the next 10 years to make close to $60,000. This isn’t an arbitrary salary number I’m throwing around here; I’m using it as a reference, given that the national mean is around $58K according to data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Precisely, Eve would make roughly $56,000 in 10 years, not counting any additional duties she may earn extra for, like coaching or serving on some committee. At St. Andrew’s, for example, this would be similar, as she wouldn’t earn a raise on any stipends she received for coaching, being Department Chair, etc. Clearly, that’s a lot of time and sweat equity just to be earning—in a decade—close to the current national mean. Of course, we all understand that cost of living in this state is lower than elsewhere, but mathematically (and I teach English) the money saved due to cost of living doesn’t account for a substantial salary cut relative to teachers in other states, let alone the potential to earn 40% more in other fields.

Adam, our first year teacher, would need over two decades of service at a guaranteed 2% annual raise to make anything close to what a college graduate can make in another field in their first year alone, or what teachers can earn in other places nationwide—of course, cost of living adjustments matter when considering this reality. After a decade of service, Adam wouldn’t even earn what Eve earns currently, $45,000.

Pay clarity, clear, standardized means with which to progress in earnings, and incentives to do more would all go a long way to helping teachers here, at other private schools, and at public schools across the country not only stay, but consider teaching as a more viable, lucrative career. In fact, nearly the majority of all other schools similar to St. Andrew’s (those within the same national benchmark group) have a clearly defined faculty salary scale. According to data from our benchmark group, “Roughly half of . . . schools [47%] use a defined salary scale for full-time teachers. The criteria most frequently used in setting the scale are Degrees (80% of schools), Teaching Load (58% of schools), and Years at the School (42%). Merit is used at 32% of schools.” Systematizing salary scales and defining the means with which to earn more are bigger than one raise every twenty-five years. The data suggests that scheduled, frequent adjustments—at the very least to account for cost of living and inflation—are necessary for hiring and retention.

Some estimates from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) suggest that nearly a third of employees in the US leave/quit within 6 months of being hired. That’s staggering. More interesting, however, is that this same survey also concludes that close to 95% of those surveyed would’ve stayed had they felt like their employer was invested in their employee’s long-term learning. Moreover, it’s expensive to hire new employees. Let’s consider, hypothetically, that Eve leaves her teaching job, and her employer needs to replace her. It could cost around 33% of Eve’s salary to replace her, considering the costs associated with recruitment, interviews, onboarding a new hire, etc. In this way, retention matters because it saves money, something all schools care about. Therefore, clarity in earnings, standardized means to progress in earnings, and incentives to try and earn more would help not only retain current and new faculty, but it would help drive interested, aspiring to teachers into the field and help dispel the misguided adage that, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” This isn’t just a logical approach, it’s sensible, and more equitable.

Lastly, and I say this again because I do think it matters: more money alone isn’t the solution, it’s just one part of the equation. But in a profession that serves as the scaffolding for our country’s future, why should we view that career choice as a personal sacrifice deserving of less compensation? Furthermore, given that new folks (and old) have the opportunity to earn upwards of 40% more in any field other than teaching, it seems like there’s an elephant in the room that merits our nation’s collective attention. Yes, there is much to be done in convincing society, especially aspiring educators, that teaching is a profession that, albeit challenging, is incredibly rewarding and worth pursuing—not simply for what it pays. However, self-sacrifice shouldn’t be treated as a scapegoat to pay teachers less.

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