Teachers in the US are paid less than the average full-time worker, are underpaid for their level of education, and have experienced real wage declines for the past decade.
While real median earnings for full-time workers increased by 2.6% from 2010 to 2019, median earnings for teachers declined by 4.4% for high school teachers and 8.4% for elementary and middle school teachers.
In 2018, teachers from over 300 school districts participated in a teacher strike movement called #RedforEd to call for higher wages. In 2022, teachers went on strikes for higher wages and better teaching conditions in many states, including in California, Minnesota, and Washington. Despite these advocacy movements, teachers continue to see comparably low wages across the country.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average public teacher salary in 2021 was $65,090. This figure was lower than the 2021 average pay of all full-time, year-round workers, $75,203.
There is some variation in teacher pay depending on job type and location. Public school teachers tend to be paid slightly more than private school teachers on average, although this depends on the type of private school. Urban and suburban teachers tend to hold higher wages than rural teachers, and teachers earn more as their experience grows. However, the overall trend of slow teacher wage growth holds consistently.
In the most recent data, 97.3% of public K-12 teachers had at least a bachelor’s degree and 58% had at least a master’s degree.
In 2021, US workers with a bachelor’s degree made around $25,000 more than those who had no more than a high school diploma. A graduate degree increased median income by an additional $20,000. But teachers have not reaped the salary benefits of higher education. Despite their high level of education, the median teacher is paid similarly to the median earner who completed just a bachelor’s.
Even compared to other government employees that require college degrees, teachers make less money. For example, the median teacher makes around $5,000 less than the median government human resource worker.
In fact, the median police officer was paid almost $3,000 more than the median teacher, even though only around 1% of police departments required a four-year degree in 2015, the most recent year of the data.
While average teacher pay ranges from around $48,000 in Mississippi to around $88,000 in New York, teachers are paid less than the average employee in nearly every state. Hawaii is the only state where the average teacher pay is higher than the average pay across all professions. Given that just 38.7% of US earners have a bachelor’s degree, the below-average pay of teachers is particularly notable.
Teachers in Arizona, Virginia, and Washington, DC earned less than three-quarters of the average employee in each area. At $80,000, average teacher pay in Washington, DC is higher than in most states. But teachers make 68% of the average full-time DC employee wage, the lowest percentage in the country.
One explanation for lower teacher salaries is that what teachers lose in their current salary, they gain in future pensions. Pensions typically give teachers a percentage of their ending salary every year after retirement, based on years of service. Depending on the state, pensions may also replace social security.
While teacher pension data is difficult to aggregate due to the range of state and local policies, a few data points indicate that pension benefits are not sufficient to explain the low pay of teachers.
First, only around half of new teacher hires stay long enough to leave with any pensions at all. Of those, more than half do not break even with their own contributions from their salary while working, meaning the total amount of their salary diverted to pensions is less than the total pensions they receive in retirement. Only teachers who teach in the same state for decades can reap the full benefits of the pension system.
Teacher pensions also tend to have a smaller impact on their long-term wealth than other government employees, including the pensions of police officers and firefighters, according to the Social Security Administration. This is because teachers tend to retire later and reap benefits for fewer years than these other occupations.
During the school year, the median teacher works extra hours, spending around 50 hours on teaching per week and $300 of their personal money on classroom supplies, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey. During the summers, the median teacher puts in work during every month outside of July.
Despite the low pay, most teachers would not leave teaching for a higher-paying job. About 65% of teachers responded that they would not leave teaching for a higher-paying job in an NCES survey for educators. Even through the pandemic, less than 5% of teachers switched occupations in either 2020 or 2021, lower than the nationwide rate of 13%.
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