Originally published in teach magazine, August 2014
A huge portion of Tennessee teachers have not received a salary increase for the past several years. State funding has remained flat and local revenue is scarce, causing many school systems to give one time bonuses, if anything, for an increase in compensation. The problem of stagnant pay is unique in Tennessee.
While most Americans agree that teachers do not receive the professional pay they deserve, the conversation has generally been framed around the difficulty of attracting people to the teaching profession. Less attention has been paid to educators who have been in the classroom for at least ten years and the stagnant salaries that are squeezing them out of the middle class. The Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington D.C., today released a issue brief examining this very issue and what they found was deeply troubling.
“The bottom line is that mid- and late-career teachers are not earning what they deserve, nor are they able to gain the salaries that support a middle-class existence,” write Ulrich Boser and Chelsea Straus, the authors of the report. “It does not have to be—and should not be—this way.”
Looking at a variety of databases, Boser and Strauss single out states where the average teacher salary for experienced teachers isn’t especially competitive with other professions that demand much less rigorous coursework. For example, teachers in Colorado with a graduate degree and 10 years of experience make less than a trucker. Similarly, in Oklahoma, teachers with 15 years of experience and a master’s degree make less than sheet metal workers. In some states, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 10 years of experience makes significantly less than the state’s median household income.
Even in states such as California, where teachers with ten years of experience make more money (average salary in California: $51,400) the climbing high cost of living, particularly in urban areas, negates any real financial advantage over their colleagues in other states.
Boser and Strauss also point out that teachers’ salaries slow to a crawl before they reach mid-career. For example, the average starting salary of $37,595 for an elementary school teacher only increases to $46,130 after 15 years in the classroom. The average salary for mid-career elementary school teachers in countries surveyed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is almost 10 percent higher.
Still, some cities are taking a hard look at the issue and devising ways to better compensate their teachers, including Portland, Maine. The Professional Learning Based Salary Schedule (PLBSS) rewards teachers who continuously take classes to sharpen and advance their skills. The PLBSS was the result of a collaborative effort by the Portland Education Association and the Portland school district to develop an alternative teacher compensation plan that steers clear of student test scores as a factor, instead encouraging teachers to remain career-long learners (and an example to their students).
“This approach has shown results,” according to Boser and Straus. “For one, the next-generation salary schedule has effectively increased staff interest in professional learning. Other survey data suggest that the new salary structure has improved classroom teaching, with more than 75 percent of Portland teachers saying that the system has contributed greatly or somewhat to improvements in their classroom teaching.”
The authors concede that keeping great teachers in the classroom depends on more than higher pay. Most surveys of educators highlight the need for better working conditions and greater support from administrators as key factors in determining whether they stay or leave the classroom. Still, professional pay has to be part of the formula, say Boser and Straus.
“As a nation, we need to do far more to attract—and keep—mid- and late-career teachers. In the end, if we truly want to retain top talent in our classrooms, we need to offer top-talent salaries.”