Teacher salaries are okay, so what’s the problem?


In an April 2018 article, Education Week reported the average teacher salaries of each state and the District of Columbia, noting: 

The average public-school teacher salary for 2016-17 was $59,660—up from $58,353 in 2015-16. The NEA estimated that the average salary for this school year (2017-18) is $60,483. It seems like teacher pay is steadily increasing—but the NEA found that when inflation is taken into account, the average teacher salary has actually decreased by 4 percent from 2008-09 to 2017-18.

The US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported the annual mean wage of 1,065 occupations in its May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.  Of those 1065 occupations, 14 were related to teaching occupations from Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers ($39,600) to Secondary School Special Education Teachers, ($64,590). The average for all 14 positions was $58,762. According to that wage estimate, average teacher salaries are just above the annual mean wage of  $50,620 reported for all occupations by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the 2017 U.S. Median Household Income was $61,372 putting teacher salaries just below average.

Based on these numbers, the average teacher in the U.S. could be considered as “doing ok.” When compared to most other occupations, teacher salaries are “somewhere around the middle.” 

If graded on that scale, teacher salaries would get a C.

Unfortunately, the same grade could be applied to our children’s academic performance when assessment scores are compared with other countries.

A February 2017 Pew Research Center report found the following: 

Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations. One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. 

The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

Blame for mediocre performance by U.S. students can’t just be laid at the feet of teachers. There are many other factors that affect academic growth, such as family involvement and socio-economic status, but certainly, one could argue that the most influential element of a student’s success in school is the teacher.

In an August 2018 Gallup Poll, 71% of parents rated the performance of their children’s teachers as good or excellent, (22% rated teacher performance as fair, 6% poor.) In the same poll, only 42% of participants rated a career in the business sector of teaching as positive or very positive.

The profession is wonderful and attracts many creative, intelligent, and talented individuals, but over time, many become disenchanted. 

In 2015, the latest data available, a bit more than 1 million teachers left for a different job. Overall, around 8% of teachers leave the profession every year, according to the Learning Policy Institute, citing Department of Education data.

In particular, when turnover contributes to teacher shortages, schools often respond by hiring inexperienced or unqualified teachers, increasing class sizes, or cutting class offerings, all of which impact student learning. 

Research is clear that both teacher inexperience and rates of turnover negatively impact student learning, which means that students in schools with high turnover and few experienced teachers are at a decided educational disadvantage.

The biggest reason teachers cited for leaving, whether it was to retire or take another job, was dissatisfaction—with the teaching profession, the lack of opportunities to advance, the meger administrative support, or the working conditions. (Varathan, 2018)

Is teacher pay fair compensation for the job? What are some of the roles and responsibilities we expect teachers to perform for their students, or in business terms, for their clientele? 

The average class size in the United States is 22 students. Few businesses, if any, require one representative from the organization to spend six to seven hours each day directly interacting with 22 clients each hour in one room, (nor is there any business that requires representatives meet with their clients’ parents on a regular basis). 

Below is a sample list of typical responsibilities and services provided by teachers to their students, as submitted by one teacher to The Washington Post (Sidbotham, J., September 8, 2015):

  • Teach five classes or so — which is like doing five performances every day in which you stand up in front of people and entertain them for an hour. Or it's like being a pitcher in a game. You are always part of the play.

  • Prepare lessons. Research. Reread a chapter of, say, "The Scarlet Letter" and an article about Puritan culture, prepare discussion questions, plan an activity, figure out how to pace the class. To keep students' interest, you need to shift gear. Stay up to date on your material. Read secondary sources on the books you're teaching, read about teaching techniques and so on.

  • Create assessments. Write up the assignment, create a rubric, draft detailed instructions. Quizzes should be fair to everyone but also test whether students have done the work. A good five-question multiple-choice quiz can take 45 minutes to an hour to create.

  • Grade assessments. (This is usually done during vacations.) One essay for a class of 15 means reading some 60 pages of student-written work, writing and editing comments, and making a judgment about each grade, all while wondering: Is this fair? Did the student improve? Did he or she really read the book? Will the parents complain? Am I expecting too much? Am I expecting too little?

  • Write comments for each student. Sixty students, at a third of a page each, comes to 20 pages of tactful evaluation. Reread these for unintended messages. Include something that shows you really know the child. Proofread, proofread, proofread.

  • Learn a new grading input program. Learn a new program for posting homework. Calculate grades and drop the lowest quiz. Make sure it's accurate.

  • E-mail colleagues. Answer an e-mail asking why you gave two quizzes in a week. Send an e-mail expressing concern about a student's sudden, dramatic weight loss.

  • E-mail parents. This often involves calculating updated course averages, because parents want to know what they want to know when they want to know it. Sometimes it means untangling a misunderstanding. No, your son's iPad use was not appropriate for class. He was not taking notes. He was playing a game. I did not take it away from him for no reason. 

  • Respond to a student crying in the bathroom. Hunt down the student's counselor.

  • Write a college recommendation. Go back through your grade books and papers. Check the school's Web site to see if the student was the captain of the soccer team. Send an e-mail to find out more about her role in the choral group. Make it unique.

  • Chaperone a dance. Chaperone a camping trip. And like it. Attend games, school plays, school concerts, and faculty meetings.

  • Perform at back-to-school night. Prepare what you'll say to parents; write, print and photocopy handouts. Get your clothes dry-cleaned, if you can afford it. 

  • Be compassionate, rigorous, interesting, funny, smart, innovative, experienced and patient.

The author of that article didn’t mention that teachers also must prepare for emergencies such as natural disasters or an armed attacker on campus. They must plan how to protect their clients.

Do other professions, such as Computer Systems Analysts, Funeral Service Managers, and Financial Examiners who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are paid on average 50% higher than teachers, provide such attention and services to 22 clients each hour, face to face, every working day? 

What about the Purchasing Managers, Lawyers, and Flight engineers who receive twice as much or more than teachers? Do they work at this intensity level? Do lawyers meet with 22 clients each hour, six to seven hours each day, 180 or more days a year? Granted, the outcome of each lawyer’s case may have huge consequences for the client, but couldn’t the same be said of the outcomes on a child’s future related to time spent with a teacher?

And how about pro-athletes and movie stars who earn a hundred or more times what a teacher makes? Are their services really worth a hundred times more than teachers?

How about a 20% raise for all teachers? That would put the average teacher salary in competition with Web Developers, Loan Officers, and Real Estate Brokers. 

Many say that the education sector is well funded by the federal government and shouldn’t receive more.

Discretionary spending in 2015 was 1.11 trillion dollars (29.34%) of the federal budget. Education, funded through discretionary spending, was $69.98 billion or 6.28% of discretionary spending. 

In fiscal year 2015, the federal budget was $3.8 trillion.  The U.S. Treasury divides all federal spending into three groups: mandatory spending, discretionary spending and interest on debt. Mandatory and discretionary spending account for more than ninety percent of all federal spending, and pay for all of the government services and programs on which we rely. (National Priorities Project)

Education receives 1.84% of the total federal budget. For every dollar we give to the federal government, less than 2 pennies go to our kids’ education. 

Are teachers and schools worth more than 2 pennies?

There are few roles in society that rival the importance of a great teacher. Stars in any field - music, athletics, engineering, medicine, politics - have an army of teachers to thank for teaching them the skills and values that currently allow them to be successful. Teachers are the builders of society - we build people - we build and develop future generations. There is no more important profession. (Glenn Gerher Ph.D)

When it comes to demonstrating how much we value teachers in this country, we can do better. We must pay teachers a fair wage for the services they provide to their customers: our children.

Learn About

Teacher Salaries

U.S. Student Assessment Score Comparisons

Teacher Turnover Rates

Teacher Roles and Responsibilities

Educational Funding 


Learn more about teacher salaries, student performance, professional expectations and more...

Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States, Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000 

Desilver, D., U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries, Facttank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, February 15, 2017, retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

Fontenot, K., Semega, J., and Kollar M., Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017 (Sepember 12, 2018) United States Census Bureau, Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2018/demo/p60-263.html

Gallup, Education, Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1612/education.aspx

Geher Ph.D., G. Teaching : The Single Most Important Profession (May 4, 2015) Psychology Today, Retrieved from


National Priorities Project, (March 2019) Retrieved from 


Sidebotham, J., Here's what people think teachers do all day — and what they actually do (Sep. 8, 2015) 

Business Insider, Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/heres-what-people-think-teachers-do-all-day-and-what-they-actually-do-2015-9 

Will, M., See How Your State’s Average Teacher Salary Compares, Education Week, April 24, 2018 retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2018/04/teacher_pay_2017.html

Varathan, P., The US is having a hard time keeping teachers in their jobs, (June 1, 2018) Quatz, Retrieved from https://qz.com/1284903/american-teachers-leave-their-jobs-at-higher-rates-than-other-countries-with-top-ranked-school-systems/