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Teacher Salaries: A Key Factor in Recruitment and Retention

Solving Teacher Shortages: Understanding Teacher Salaries

This is the fourth blog in a series exploring the state of teacher shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic and evidence-based solutions for addressing immediate needs and building a strong and diverse teaching workforce. This post is part of the blog series, Solving Teacher Shortages

Teacher shortages have been a growing concern across the country for several years, but additional challenges during the pandemic have led to severe staffing challenges in California, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, and elsewhere. Recent teacher surveys highlight that in addition to the stresses of COVID-19—such as longer working hours, concerns about contracting the virus, and juggling child care responsibilities—teacher salaries also contribute to shortages. This should come as no surprise, since U.S. teachers generally earn only about 80% of what other college-educated workers earn on a weekly basis. Indeed, among teachers under 40 who left the profession during the pandemic, the top reason identified for their departure was that the pay was insufficient to merit the risk or stress of the job.

Earlier this year, policymakers in New Mexico responded to teacher shortages throughout the state by passing two separate bipartisan bills to raise educator pay. In February, the legislature passed a bill that increased base salaries by an average of 20%. The base salary for beginning teachers increased from $40,000 to $50,000. The law, which passed both chambers without a single “no” vote, also increased base pay for veteran teachers, from $60,000 to $70,000. Later, the 2022 state budget—passed in March—included funding to support an additional 7% average pay raise for the state’s teachers. The salary increases are part of the state’s long-term strategy to improve teacher recruitment and retention. These moves came after Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called on National Guard members and state workers to serve as substitute teachers—a short-term effort to avoid closures and shifts to distance learning due to COVID-19-related absences. The Governor even filled in herself as a substitute kindergarten teacher for a day. 

New Mexico is not alone in rethinking teacher pay. Mississippi legislators, for example, recently passed the largest teacher pay raise since the 1980s, which increased the state’s base starting salary by 12% and bumped starting pay above the national average. Current teachers will also receive an average pay raise of $5,140. A number of other states are also considering teacher raises, spurred into action by shortages and concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the teacher workforce.

The Impact of Teacher Turnover

High teacher turnover can disrupt learning and make it harder for students to be successful. For example, a study in New York City found that high rates of school-level attrition had a negative effect on student achievement in the grade levels where teachers left, especially in schools serving more Black students and more low-performing students. Replacing teachers who leave also has a high cost to schools and districts. For example, urban districts can, on average, spend more than $20,000 on each new hire, including school and district expenses related to separation, recruitment, hiring, and training. (See LPI’s calculator to estimate the cost of turnover.) Addressing teacher turnover is key to stemming shortages nationwide, as about 90% of the annual demand for teachers is created when teachers leave the profession, with two thirds of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement.

Taking Stock of Salaries

A new resource by the Learning Policy Institute provides a state-by-state analysis of teacher salaries using three key metrics: starting salaries, starting salaries adjusted for cost of living, and teacher wage competitiveness. These data show that teachers’ salaries generally lag those of other college-educated workers, but they vary greatly from state to state. Taken together, this analysis provides policymakers and others a valuable tool for understanding teacher salaries in their own states, including how their compensation metrics compare to those of similar states.  

Nationally, teachers’ weekly earnings are about 80% of what other college-educated professionals make in a week, but there is great variation across states.

Average Annual Starting Salary: We use 2019–20 salary data collected by the National Education Association to illustrate the wide range in average starting teacher salaries in public school districts across the United States. While the average starting teacher salary nationally was $41,163, there was a more than $23,000 difference between the highest and lowest annual starting salary. Three states (California, New Jersey, and Washington) and Washington, DC, had average starting salaries above $49,000, while in two states (Missouri and Montana) average starting salaries were less than $35,000.

Average Annual Starting Salary, Adjusted for State Cost of Living: The value of teacher salaries depends considerably on the cost of living in each state. The adjusted average salaries can facilitate easier comparisons across states and provide context for interpreting particularly high or low average salaries. For example, Mississippi—with an unadjusted average starting salary of $36,543—has one of the lowest average starting salaries in the country, ranking 45th. However, Mississippi has a relatively lower cost of living than most other states with similar average starting salaries and ranks 28th in average starting salary nationally once adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher Wage Competitiveness: Another important consideration, especially when thinking about how to recruit and retain teachers, is whether teacher salaries are competitive compared to other career choices that teacher candidates or current teachers could be considering. We illustrate differences in teacher wage competitiveness across states using a metric, developed by the Economic Policy Institute, that estimates how much public school teachers earn in their weekly wage compared to other college-educated workers. Their estimates use weekly wages, rather than yearly or hourly wages, to account for teachers’ shorter contracts, while controlling for worker characteristics that typically influence compensation (see their methodology).

Nationally, teachers’ weekly earnings are about 80% of what other college-educated professionals make in a week, but there is great variation across states. In three states (New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wyoming), average teacher wages are very competitive compared to average non-teacher wages, with teachers estimated to make over 95% of what similarly educated non-teachers make. In contrast, in Arizona and Virginia teachers earn, on average, less than 70% of what their non-teacher counterparts earn.

Importantly, there are states with relatively high average starting teacher salaries where teacher wages are much less competitive. For example, Washington state ranks fourth nationally in average starting teacher salary, but Washington teachers are estimated to make only 72% of what non-teacher college graduates make. This could indicate that teacher salaries across the state are not competitive compared to other industries. In other states, like North Carolina, wages are both low and not competitive. North Carolina teachers earn about 75% of what non-teacher college graduates in the state earn and their salaries are below the national average starting salary, with and without factoring in the cost of living.

The Role of Federal Policy

While teacher pay levels are a district and state policy decision, there are steps the federal government can take to improve the economic livelihood of teachers. These include creating tax credits for teachers and updating and enhancing existing grant and loan programs to reduce debt for teachers (and other public servants).

The Importance of Addressing Teacher Salaries

This state-by-state analysis illustrates the troubling status of teacher compensation across the country. Another recent analysis found that teachers are three times as likely as all workers in the U.S. to report having multiple jobs. These challenging conditions are prompting policymakers in Mississippi, New Mexico, and elsewhere to raise teacher compensation as one of many important strategies to build a strong and diverse teacher workforce. Raising teacher pay both addresses the immediate crisis and can help to stabilize the profession for the long term. As Antonio Castanon Luna, the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Educators, described his state’s pay increase, “It’s an investment in the future of Mississippi.... We will be able to recruit teachers to our classrooms now and for years to come.”