Teacher in medical mask holding empty wallet with no money toward the camera

Weekend Reads | ‘Pay Penalty’ for Teachers Is Higher Than Ever

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s read is a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which describes itself as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.” The report analyzes trends in teacher pay in the United States since 1979 — and the news is not good.

When doing this kind of analysis, the key question to ask is, “Compared to what?” And in this case, the EPI researchers compared pay rates to inflation, as well as to pay rates of other U.S. workers with comparable levels of education. It’s also worth noting that analyzing teacher pay has proven challenging over the years because of the “summer off” issue: Teachers don’t work and don’t get paid over the summer (though many take other jobs). The researchers addressed this by comparing weekly pay during the school year rather than total pay over a full year.

From 1979 to the mid-1990s, pay for both teachers and other workers matched or outpaced inflation. Yet there was a fairly consistent $300 gap, or “pay penalty” in the researchers’ terms, for teachers compared to their counterparts. But since 1995, teacher pay has been flat once adjusted for inflation, at just over $1,300 per week in 2021 dollars. Pay for other workers, however, has continued to rise and last year rose to $2,000 per week, more than doubling the pay penalty for teachers. Teachers aren’t falling behind inflation, but they are now far less financially rewarded than other college-educated workers.

When adjusted for other factors, including age, education level, marital status, race/ethnicity, and state of residence, the dire state of teacher pay becomes even more clear — especially for male teachers. In 1979, female teachers actually enjoyed a 6.5% pay premium over their peers, i.e., they were paid 6.5% more. Male teachers, however, had a 16.6% pay penalty. Over the next 15 years, those differences began to converge toward pay parity, but from 1995 on, the pay penalty has continued to grow. Last year, the penalty for male teachers reached a record level of 35.2%. This goes a long way toward explaining why there are so few male teachers in the United States.

EPI breaks out the pay penalty by state. Here in Washington, the teacher pay penalty is 29.1%, higher than the national average of 23.5%. The worst state is Colorado, at 35.9%. Only three states come close to parity: New Jersey, Wyoming, and Rhode Island. Looking at a national map, there is no obvious regional pattern to teacher pay penalties.

There is one partly mitigating factor: Teachers have strong benefits packages compared to other workers. EPI calculated the value of their typical benefits package and found that it is a significant premium that has increased over time. Last year, at a national level, the benefits package offset 9.3% of the pay penalty, leading to a net compensation penalty for teachers of 14.2%

The EPI researchers note that there has been a “long steep relative erosion of teacher wages” compared to their peers in other fields. Teacher shortages are now a critical problem in many parts of the country, and low pay is often cited by college students as a reason for low interest in teaching as a profession. Certainly, the compensation level sends a strong message about how our society places a relative value on teachers and teaching as a profession — particularly at a time when politicians are more often taking a heavy-handed approach to directing what teachers may and may not teach.

The teacher pay penalty has hit a new high


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock.com.

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