Jacquelyn Smith, careers editor for Business Insider, wrote an article in 2015 focusing on the 13 most meaningful jobs in America. When compiling her list, based on a survey of over 2 million professionals, she found that 12 of the 13 listed jobs fell either in the field of healthcare or education. Both career fields provide opportunity to contribute to the overall improvement of the country, but a big difference is in the salaries listed. The median pay for an anesthesiologist is $273,000 while the median pay for a kindergarten teacher is $39,000. Granted, one requires extensive medical training and the other requires a bachelor’s degree.
There is no denying that to be an educator means valuing the intrinsic reward of making the world a better place over the extrinsic reward of receiving a monthly paycheck that barely pays the bills. Why, as a society, do we deem it acceptable to pay educators so much less than other professionals in careers of high regard?
History of low pay
Historically, teaching and competitive wages have never walked hand-in-hand. In the 1800s, teacher compensation consisted of room and board provided by the community which he or she served. This was not an unusual arrangement during the time of a barter economy.
As education progressed into the 1900s, teachers were expected to have more formal training as school systems became more structured. Boarding arrangements were replaced by a salary schedule. A payment hierarchy was quickly established, with secondary teachers receiving higher pay than elementary teachers and men earning larger salaries than women and minority teachers of both genders. This position-based salary structure was a single-salary schedule in response to opposition over gender and race discrimination. Years of experience played a larger role in the hierarchy of pay scale.
Because teaching was regarded as a female-dominated profession (according to Business Insider, 81 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are women as of 2015), it was not beyond societal norms to keep pay low since women were not the primary earner within the traditional family structure.
As changes in education have led to increased licensure requirements, greater accountability, and higher standards, teachers have remained trapped under both a single-salary schedule that emphasizes years of experience and a paradigm that teaching is not a profitable career.
Your tax dollars at work
Nothing warms a teacher’s heart quite like a parent-teacher conference where an overbearing parent says “My tax dollars pay your salary!” Essentially, that parent is correct. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2013 that one-fourth, or approximately $280 billion nationwide, of state tax revenue goes toward education. By far, the largest piece of the education budget goes toward salary and benefits for employees. An increase in salaries probably means an increase in taxes.
A Harris Poll conducted in 2015 found that 60 percent of American adults believe that teachers are paid too little. The challenge lies not only in finding the funds to increase pay, but also in deciding on the philosophy for teacher compensation reform.
For years, state and federal legislators have toyed with merit-based pay initiatives, school-based performance awards, and skill-based pay. Most of these ideas focus solely on state-mandated test scores to drive the pay increases. This type of reform is not supported by the educational community due to the summative nature of these assessments, the concern that approximately 25 percent of educators teach tested subjects, and the inherit nature of low assessment scores in high poverty settings. This battle of ideologies often leads to little progress in the area of teacher compensation.
Getting your money’s worth
Does higher pay result in higher student achievement? Can the United States buy its way into the top education echelon of countries such as South Korea, Finland, and Singapore? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development places the United States ninth on the list of teacher salaries across the world.
Comparatively, Finland was 23rd on the list and below the OECD average. Finland is among the top academically performing countries in the world, according to the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The United States educational system is often compared to high performers such as Finland, with legislators and educational antagonists furrowing their brows trying to figure out why we can’t be more like them.
So what makes Finland so special? The most obvious response would be to highlight the significantly small size and low poverty rate of this country, especially compared to the United States. Educational advocates would point to the low dependency on high-stakes testing and the larger amounts of teacher time devoted to curriculum development.
Perhaps the most critical factor, and the most complex, would be their cultural attitude toward education. The value of education in Finland is very high. Although the teacher salary may not be comparable to the medical profession, there is a large amount of autonomy and an expectation of collaboration over competition.
Rather than the factory-model design that is rooted in the American educational system, Finland embraces a system based on the developmental milestones of students. Essentially, all practices at the school level and policies at the legislative level work in a symbiotic way that puts the need of the student first.
A desirable profession?
No Child Left Behind increased the accountability of schools and put a magnifying lens on the educational process in our country. This reform led to a greater emphasis on more concrete, research-based curriculum practices and began a shift on the role of the educator.
As the new generation of college-bound students look at the career options in front of them, there will still be many who see teaching as the most direct path to changing the world. There will be many more who see the challenges on the surface of the education field: high stress, low autonomy, lack of respect, and miniscule compensation. These challenges may outweigh their desire to use teaching as a catalyst for change when other professions can do likewise without the additional roadblocks. This shift should be a concern for all American citizens.
Teachers don’t deserve just more money, they deserve an entire culture shift. Even if someone disagrees with the plight of educators, it’s hard to deny that education isn’t as valued as it should be in America. The work doesn’t fall strictly on legislators or on educational advocates; it falls on all of us. Regardless of the preference for public schools, charter or private institutions, education as a whole needs to play a more pivotal role in the framework of our society.
It is not enough to simply lament the plight of educators or dismiss it because you don’t have a child in school. A country is only as strong as the education of those who support it. President Harry Truman summarized this by saying, “Without a strong educational system, democracy is crippled. Knowledge is not only key to power. It is the citadel of human freedom.”
Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Allan F. Cook, "Perceptions and Beliefs Regarding Men in Elementary and Early Childhood Education," University of Illinois at Springfield
- Kathleen Elkins, "20 Jobs That Are Dominated By Women," Business Insider
- "History of Teacher Pay," Consortium for Policy Research in Education
- "Policy Basics: Where Do Our State Tax Dollars Go?," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
- "Finland," Center on International Education Benchmarking
- LynNell Hancock, "Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?," Smithsonian.com
- "How the Job of a Teacher Compares Around the World," The Guardian
- Jacquelyn Smith, "The 13 Most Meaningful Jobs in America," Business Insider
- "Are We Paying Our Teachers Enough? Most Americans Say ‘No’," The Harris Poll