The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary


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There are many suggestions for improving America’s public schools:


More standardized tests.


New academic standards.


Increase charter schools and/or allow kids to attend private schools with public money.


But one reform you hardly ever hear about is this: pay teachers more.


Isn’t that funny?


We’re willing to try almost everything else but that.


Sure, some folks want to tie teachers’ salaries to test scores, but that’s not increasing pay. That’s just doubling down on standardized testing.


Isn’t it shocking that no one is willing to invest more money into the actual act of educating children?


Consider this: full-time employees making minimum wage earn between $15,000-$20,000 a year. (Some states have voluntarily raised the minimum wage above the federally mandated $7.25 to as much as $10 an hour.)


Compare that to a teacher’s starting salary.


According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the low end for teachers entering the field is around $30,000. That’s a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage.


There are places in this country where going into debt earning a four year degree in education, serving an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom and agreeing to teach the next generation gets you a few notches above fry chefs and WalMart greeters.


This isn’t to disparage burger cooks or grocery clerks. I, too, love a crispy French fried potato and a sincere greeting. But which profession is more important to our future as a nation? The quality of our service industries or the education of every single child in the country – all our future doctors, lawyers, politicians and… well… EVERYTHING!


Average starting salary for teachers nationwide is only $37,000, according to NACE.


Compare that to other professions.


Computer programmers start at $65,000. Engineers start at $61,000. Accountants (mathematics and statistics majors) start at $54,000. Even philosophers and priests (philosophy and religious studies majors) start at $45,000.


Are they more important than teachers? Do they provide more value for society?


I humbly suggest that they do not.


Who taught the programmers how to program? Who taught the engineers and accountants how to add and subtract? Who taught the philosophers how to think logically? Who taught the priests how to write their sermons?


TEACHERS. That’s who.


Yet if we judge purely by starting salary, we certainly don’t value their services much.


To be specific, they make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.


Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.


Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.




According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is $45,000. That’s a mere $800 annual raise. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.


They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.


What effect does this have on students?


Well, for one, it often leaves them with inexperienced or exhausted teachers.


Nationwide, 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!


That translates to more students learning from educators who are, themselves, just learning how to teach. If we took pains to keep them in the profession, think of what a positive impact that would have on the quality of education the nation’s students  receive – Teachers learning from experience and improving their practice every year instead of a continual flux of novices just trying to figure out the basics and survive!


But it’s not all intangibles. It costs bookoo bucks to constantly find and train new teachers – roughly $7.34 billion a year, to be exact. Imagine if we could invest that money into salaries instead.


This is exactly what they do in many other countries.


We’re always comparing ourselves with nations in Europe and Asia where students average higher standardized test scores. Yet we rarely enact the policies that got them these results.


Many of these countries recruit the top graduates to become teachers. How? By offering sweeteners and incentives to become a life-long educator.


In Singapore and Finland, for example, they actually cover the cost of the college coursework needed to become a teacher. And when it comes to salary, they leave us in the dust. In South Korea, they pay educators an average of 250 percent more than we do!


For many people, education is a calling. You feel drawn toward the job because it holds meaning to you. But how many people ignore that calling because of simple economics? There are plenty of things you can do with your life; If you can’t earn a living doing one thing, you may opt for something else.


How many more excellent teachers would we have in this country if we prized and rewarded those practitioners we already have?


It doesn’t take a deep dive into the news to see how teachers are treated in American society far beyond the low pay.


Everything that goes wrong in our public schools is laid at their feet whether they have any control over it or not. Child poverty, inequitable and inadequate resources, regressive and nepotistic policy, backward education legislation – it’s all somehow the teacher’s fault.


Imagine if we saw teachers as part of the solution! What effect would that have on teacher turnover?


Look no further than our foreign counterparts. In South Korea, turnover is only 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, it’s 3 percent.


It’s certainly worth a try.


As reforms go, this is one with more evidence behind it than 90 percent of the garbage that comes floating out of partisan think tanks.


Pay teachers more.


Starting salary should be at least $65,000. End pay after 30 years should be at least $150,000.


THAT would boost educational outcomes.


And, please, don’t give me any nonsense about summer break, teacher tenure, the power of unions or whatever else you heard on talk radio or the corporate news media. Teachers average 53 hours a week August through June – making up for any downtime in the summer, tenure doesn’t mean a job for life – it means due process, and unions aren’t evil – they just ensure workers more rights than the bosses would like.


Moreover, don’t tell me we can’t afford it. We spend more on the military than the next 8 nations combined.


Imagine if we put a priority on raising our own children instead of guns and missiles. Imagine if we spent more on life than death.


Imagine if we tried the one reform left in the box – increase teacher pay.


49 thoughts on “The One Reform We Never Try: Increase Teacher Salary

  1. I will add one more piece to your idea, smaller classes. While I don’t data to support it, most of the poorer schools have some of the largest class sizes. They also have some of the least experienced teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Many valid points. Thank you! We need educational reform and certainly increased teacher pay, revised teacher education programs, and less emphasis on testing are some important ways to start. I do much reading on these subjects are you are spot on! Thanks, again!


  3. Back when I was teaching, I usually taught summer school for extra money.
    I taught children with special needs, and there were usually summer programs for them.
    Oh, and Steven, you didn’t mention the cost to teachers of continuing education and professional development. Those courses aren’t free.
    And the money many teachers spend, out of their own pockets, for classroom supplies not provided by the schools. That takes away from their salaries, as well.


  4. The graph showing teacher salary growth in other countries compared to US salary growth is powerful. Hope it gets widely seen by lawmakers, business, parents, the general public, everyone.


  5. When I started teaching 30+ years ago I made $13,500, which is the inflationary equivalent of $35,067 today. The end of the salary schedule for teachers with maximum years experience and graduate hours equal to a doctorate was $40,000, which is the inflationary equivalent of $103,904.56, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics calendar. I make far less than that, with maximum years experience and credit hours. We are losing ground.


  6. I am in complete agreement that teachers need to be paid as the professionals they are. Let’s add, though, that they need professional education, which means a master’s degree. As you note, other countries are far more selective about whom they admit to education programs and require more than a bachelor’s degree for certification. It’s no coincidence that the states in this country with the lowest educational achievement are also the ones with the lowest certification requirements. These are also the states with the least respect for teachers and the greatest restrictions on their autonomy. It’s a vicious cycle.

    I didn’t go into teaching for many reasons, one of which was the mediocre quality of those who would have been my classmates and my colleagues. When I heard girls (and it was almost all girls) explaining that they chose teaching because they could be home with their future children after school and in the summer, and complaining that their elementary education math course was “too hard,” I lost all desire.


    • Well, I got my Masters in education (Special Education) after getting a bachelors degree in psychology, emphasizing developmental and physiological psychology, with a minor in special education.
      The people that I worked with in Special Ed over the years were far from “mediocre,” and in fact, Suzanne, I feel extremely insulted by what you said. It was certainly not my experience in my field. Maybe you met the wrong people.
      But maybe, feeling the way you do, it’s just as well that you didn’t go into teaching, to be brutally frank.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have my Masters in Library Science and undergrad in Secondary Education – English major. After 23 years I was laid off and forced to move to a new school district. They were only willing to pay me a first-year teacher’s salary but did agree to pay me more for my Masters. I currently make $42,000. I owe over $30,000 in student loans. Most of the teacher I know DO have advanced degrees. A fat lot of good it does us!


  7. I’m a 14 year veteran teacher and I would LOVE to be making 45,000 a year!! Our starting teachers make 37,000 a year–I make 39,000. Thank you for this’s the truth!!


  8. I started teaching in Minnesota in 1973. I was paid $7400. I taught for 36 years. Along the way I got a Masters degree plus another 31 graduate credits. When I retired in 2009 my last contract was for $59,500. Truly when inflation is considered, my salary did not advance that much.


  9. It’s a surprise and a shame that teachers in the US are so poorly paid. I think there are numerous factors at work behind that, but two stand out more than others for me. One is that Americans are fixated on capitalism, free markets and endless profit generation, leaving little enthusiasm and appreciation for the “investment” in teachers, for example, as opposed to investment that just turns a monetary profit. Secondly is the idea that education and educators should not BE about profit, and that somehow, paying good salaries to teachers will attract the “wrong type” of people to the job. Neither of these ways of thinking make any sense, of course. Greed and short-sightedness are part of the problem here. Watching the current state of affairs in the political landscape in the States now reveals that there seems to be an alarmingly high percentage of Americans who simply cannot empathize with others, who have a disease called “I got mine already” which is just amazing and very sad. No wonder, then, that the idea to pay teachers well for the good of society in general just seems to be a waste of money to the thinking of many, many Americans.

    I grew up in Silicon Valley. My mom was a housewife and my dad worked his way up from the early days of computing in the 60s to middle management for computer departments of mainly defense-based tech firms until he retired (early) in the 80s. I ended up studying philosophy after bailing on my dream (film) after realizing the film industry didn’t care about university degrees in film, and then quitting the practical choice (business) because I hated the atmosphere in those courses, with so many students there just to get their degrees and work and having no real enthusiasm or interest in the subjects. I got my BA and then my MA in philosophy, thinking I would teach it, before meeting a Swiss woman majoring in business in the same university and following her to Switzerland.

    I’ve been here since 1995, and don’t have any desire to go back to the States to live. I’ve lived in Germany and Japan as well; Germany for two years as a teenager and Japan for 14 months just before settling in Zurich.

    My kids attend Swiss free public schools. The public schools in both Japan and Switzerland are well-known for having high standards. The Swiss system after primary school is tiered according to career plans to accommodate the needs and desires of students and society at large. Unlike my experience of life in the States, nearly all workers in Switzerland are skilled, so there are educational paths and programs to accommodate people who plan to work in any type of job, from flower arranging to office work to medicine, as well as to accommodate society at large who want to have well-trained people working across all sectors so that services and products for everyone are of a high quality. In the US, if you don’t go to college, you generally work in manual or unskilled labor and earn a poor wage. You have on-the-job training that is mostly either somewhat explicit and organized, or just watch-and-learn. I have heard there are vocational schools in the US for mechanics and the like but I never saw one or knew of anyone who attended such a school. My brother has been working in housing construction in California for many years and never attended a single organized course in any subject related to his field, learning everything he knows on-the-job, one home at a time.

    Only about 20% of Swiss attend university. Most office workers, for example, regardless of the industry, enter into apprenticeships that involve off-site classroom work and on-site, in-the-office work and training, so it’s not uncommon to see teenagers in suits heading to their banking jobs where they learn various tasks and eventually find their way into the field within that industry that they feel most comfortable with or do best in. When I came here over 20 years ago and began working in banking, mainly out of necessity (what’s an English-speaking philosophy grad going to do anyway?), my co-workers found it odd that I had a master’s degree (of any kind) yet was working in the bank. (This attitude is softening as more Swiss people adopt an international outlook career-wise and realize that many international firms resist hiring people without a university degree – which is putting stress on the entire Swiss educational system.)

    Primary and secondary school teachers earn salaries that place them in the middle class. Teachers here must attend university, which in most cases means teaching-specific universities, not the larger, primary universities covering business, sciences, humanities, etc. (It’s all free, so graduates don’t begin their careers saddled with debt, which is a completely different “here vs. there” subject.)

    My son was attending the “gymnasium,” which is the highest level of secondary school and specifically prepares students for the university. Students wishing to attend the gymnasium at age 12-13 must pass a gruelling test, and even then many students fail out or quit gymnasium at some point. The gymnasium coursework, like the other two levels of schooling below it (“secondary I and secondary II”) is already designed to cater to students wishing to enter this or that type of industry, or in other words, Swiss kids of 12 have to have basic career plans already in mind when they select the direction to take in gymnasium/sec I/sec II. It isn’t like high school in the US where everyone follows the same path. The course load and amount of homework is considerable. Nearly every night for 1-3 hours, and a half or a full day on the weekends is typical for the time spent doing homework.

    I’m not a fan of the insane homework load at all, but that’s the system here. My son has decided to leave the school and begin an apprenticeship. He still has the chance to attend the university depending on how things go, but at this point the main issue is his lack of direction and enthusiasm. I can relate to that: at 17 I had no idea what I wanted to do as an adult. The university is a much bigger commitment here than in the States.

    There is a narrower pay/earnings bandwidth in Switzerland than in the US, with a tighter grouping especially in the middle. Teachers here are recognized as being crucial to the development of children and society as a whole, but there is a pay ceiling that stops well short of what even a mid-level manager in a larger international firm – say in finance, law or pharmaceuticals – would be rewarded with. The trade-off is a fair amount of holiday time, and considerably better job security.

    Having lived abroad pretty extensively, it just shocks me how life in the US goes. I’ve lived in two of the safest countries in the world, where you can go out alone – even as a woman – anywhere at any time and you never, ever have to fear for your safety like you do in the US. These are just basic, basic things. Safety, healthcare, basic organization. I live near the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles here in Zurich. Zurich is smaller than any major city in the US but it is still the largest city in the country. If there would be a bottleneck or an inefficiency anywhere it would be here, right? I have had to go to this local DMV numerous times. I have never had to wait in any line more than five minutes, and half of the time I go there, there is no line whatsoever for what I need. The longest transaction I ever experienced in this government service center took me ten minutes – no, sorry, I had a 30 minute very extensive automobile safety inspection that my car was subject to.

    One of the biggest differences between life in many, many parts of the world and that in the US has to do with the simple fact that in these other places, life and work are designed around a relatively cohesive plot to provide safety and prosperity to as many people in those countries as possible. In contrast, in the US the lust for profits and wealth and power has managed to take control to the extent that there are two worlds: the world of the elites, insulated from the rest with their special privileges, private schools and communities, which ultimately controls and governs the world of everyone else. The problem of course is that these two worlds live in the same country, and that we all, everyone, live on just one planet, so that you cannot pollute and corrupt and ruin just a part of it, just the part you think you don’t care about, because it’s all ultimately connected and comes back to haunt you. Or we can say: there are the “elite” groups of people in any country, but that in so many of them, these ruling elites take much better care – for whatever reason – of the rest of the population than is done or seems to be done in the US. Why, I really have no idea.


  10. […] And the pay! No longer would any teacher need to work more than one job! They’d be compensated like professional athletes. Maybe there’d even be a draft in each state where the most promising prospects out of college would be fought over by schools with children who they think would best be served by their hire. […]


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