Why Don’t Teachers Get Paid More?

Image of peanuts and dollar bills (CC-lic)

As I noted in a recent post, it’s high time L.A. teachers got a raise.

But are U.S. teachers generally underpaid? The Department of Education repeatedly says that a quality teacher is the most important school-based factor in a child’s education, so why don’t teachers get paid more?

Higher Pay Means Higher Quality

Teachers already endure a 14% salary penalty compared to workers with similar education and work experience (even if you count summers off).

It seems obvious that in any profession, higher compensation will increase prestige and attract more qualified candidates. Meanwhile, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing finds that enrollment in teacher training programs has plummeted by two-thirds in the last decade.

It seems equally obvious that poor pay, along with lack of respect and job insecurity, also motivates current teachers to leave. And by the way, that churn costs districts money — money that could be going to teacher salaries!

Teacher Compensation Affects Students

The level of teacher salaries influences education quality. In 39 countries, a 15% rise in pay increased student performance by 6% to 8%.

— UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report (Emphasis added.)

If we’re failing to attract all of the best candidates and many teachers are leaving the profession, what is the impact on the lives of children? Academic catastrophe.

In my experience, turnover destabilizes a learning community, which undermines student trust and leads to lower academic performance. Experienced educators are then typically replaced by inexperienced teachers and the downward cycle continues.

Education on the Cheap

In the book Failure Is Not an Option, astronaut Alan Shepard shared what was on his mind as he waited for liftoff on the flight that would make him the first American in space: “Every part of this ship was built by the low bidder.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that childhood doesn’t have do-overs. With so many politicians and education reformers insisting that “failure is not an option” in educating our children, do we want our classrooms staffed by the lowest bidders?

Take Action

There are some hopeful efforts drawing the spotlight to this issue. For instance, the Teacher Salary Project was created by Ninive Calegari, Dave Eggers, and Daniel Moulthrop to raise awareness, claiming that teacher pay in the U.S. is inequitable, considering the societal contributions and the challenging working conditions.

Calegari, Eggers, and Moulthrop — all current or former teachers — created the film, The American Teacher, to pose the question, “If we all agree that teaching is a vitally important occupation, then what conditions are driving so many teachers out of the classroom, and why are so few of the best college graduates considering teaching as a profession?”

The project includes an action guide promoting simple steps anyone can take to advocate for appropriate teacher compensation.


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