What’s Really Behind the Teacher’s Salary Issue?

Teachers have been particularly hard-hit by the economic hard times and market fluctuations of recent years. No one denies that teachers are over-worked and under-paid. Because of this, salary is a major factor behind the current high rate of teacher turnover.

But what about the salary issue in particular is so problematic? One of the major contributors to the problem of teacher shortage is the relatively low income and the process of fixing teacher salaries. Experts have suggested different solutions to address the problem of low income, including increasing the pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools or subjects, introducing merit-based pay packages, or simply hiking overall salary scales for all teachers. But fixing teacher salaries is not as easy as it appears. It’s important to understand why teacher salaries are comparatively low. What’s really behind the problem?

Bureaucratic Control

The need to prepare teachers for their profession was brought to the fore in the early 20th century. During the mid-19th century, when student attendance was not even compulsory, there was no dearth of teachers. But with the advent of common schools and compulsory attendance, the nation began to witness its first teacher shortage. To counter this shortage and improve the quality of the available pool of talent, colleges and universities established “departments of education” and rolled out teacher training programs.

As time passed, state bureaucracies began to control the certification of education-school graduates. Previously, control over licensing or certification rested with local officials, who would decide who was qualified to teach in their schools. When the state took over this process, it resulted in a mismatch between the certification process and the actual local market needs. Some experts suggest that this laid the foundation for today’s teacher shortage problems, although some welcomed the idea of a licensure process that lends legitimacy to the teaching profession.

Lower Salaries = Lower Interest

In 2005, the NEA, one of America’s largest teachers’ unions, reported that the average K–12 teacher earned about $46,752. A more recent survey revealed that the average salary for traditional public school teachers was $51,243 during the 2012–2013 school year, which was an increase of 8.8% from 2005.

When salaries for teachers declined during the mid-1980s, there was a corresponding decline in the interest in teaching as a career choice among college students. It’s easy to surmise that an increase in teacher salaries would generate more interest among college graduates. Similarly, research indicates that highly qualified teachers prefer to teach in districts that have more economically advantaged students and receive higher salaries. A historical study from the 1990s found that higher salaries are a major deciding factor in attracting better-qualified teachers. This implied that higher salaries definitely entice well-qualified candidates and can be a major factor in attracting teachers to hard-to-staff rural and urban areas. In contrast, more recent studies have shown little or no evidence that schools offering higher salaries for teachers actually attract higher quality teachers. The overall results have a variety of direct policy implications for the design of school accountability and teacher compensation.

Recruiters Talk It Down, Instead of Up

Some research reveals that salary may not be the top reason for teachers leaving their profession. A study by Public Agenda, a New York-based public policy organization, found that 86% of teachers prefer more supportive parents and better behaved students to a higher salary. The survey also found that 82% asked for more supportive administrators, and 74% wanted to work in a school that had an educational mission similar to their own, instead of a higher salary. This study proposes that policy makers are ignoring other important factors that are driving the current teacher shortage and are focusing only on the salary component, which may not be a wise decision.

The majority of surveys on job dissatisfaction among teachers cite low pay to be one of the main reasons for teacher turnover. According to the Horsley and Stokes study of 2005, low pay was a very common reason for teachers’ leaving their jobs. Several researchers indicate a direct relationship between job satisfaction and pay. Guthrie and Prince’s 2009 study suggest that financial incentives are often the deciding element in job satisfaction among teachers. So, while increasing pay may not be the only way to curb teacher turnover, it’s definitely necessary in reducing teacher attrition, especially among new teachers.

While it’s plain that higher salary for teachers would reduce the rate of teacher turnover, it’s not so clear how to make that higher rate of pay possible. Salary is a complex issue in any workplace, and education is no different. The more a district and an individual know about the root of the problem, however, the more information they have to use to fix the problem and help other teachers – or themselves.

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