At a time where the demands, pressures, and accountability for classroom teachers is at an all-time high, our nation’s salaries for educators do not depict and reflect the value of this noble and crucial profession inherently.
Many states, including Pennsylvania, willfully neglect to fund schools and students. Failure to fairly compensate teachers isn’t anything new; at this point, teacher pay is consistent with the other measures of how our children and their education are viewed. School-to-prison pipelines, inadequate school funding, and the lack of teacher equity, all demonstrate that children and those who serve them are at the bottom of many politician’s totem poles.
While some would argue that uplifting children by uplifting those who serve them is amongst the noblest of actions, others, by callous actions or inactions, choose to do the opposite. Equity is one of the best and most sustainable levers for improving educational outcomes—let’s include parity in pay for our nation’s teachers as a part of this calculus.
Pay Isn’t the Only Factor But It’s Important
The average beginning teacher salary is $53,070 and the average teacher salary is $57,379. Teacher salaries are 60 percent of those of other U.S. workers with college degrees. According to a report by NCTQ, in many school districts, it can take an average of 24 years for a teacher to reach their maximum salary and it takes an average of 30 years to earn $75,000 a year.
When America wants to develop and invest in a field, they ensure that the earned wages are consistent with the wages of other highly technical experts in other competing fields of interest. Robert Kennedy proclaimed that the United States was going to produce the next generation of scientists. And, the country promoted and handsomely rewarded a generation of scientists. We saw something similar with the GI bill and wanting more college graduates.
Although pay is not the only factor that causes highly skilled and high-potential candidates to decline the prospect of leading our classrooms, it is an increasingly problematic factor. According to the 2011 MetLife survey, only 35% of teachers believe they are appropriately compensated for the mammoth work that they perform on a daily basis.
Our Students Deserve It
Our students deserve to have us professionalize the field. Often, policy makers envision and communicate grand ideals and goals for their counties, cities, and states. Unfortunately, they often miss the mark in matching their lofty goals and promises with concrete actions that can assuredly help them meet their goals. Their inaction reminds me of the Emerson quote:
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
A highly educated citizenry needs a highly educated and talented teaching force. Highly educated and talented professionals are paid handsomely in any other field. We invest in what we inherently value. With the current state of teacher salaries, what does that say about how we value educators?
Great teaching is intellectual, not just technical. The complexities of sound instruction are tremendous. A large part of why the salaries for teachers is lagging appears to be because the people in charge of setting these salaries, don’t understand what the job actually entails. It has always been super evident to me that all policy makers do not start with the premise that teachers are the quintessential nation builders and deserve to be paid as such.
What Would Raising Salaries Do?
There are many logical and just reasons to raise classroom teachers’ salaries.
There is a current shortage of teachers, with many more set to retire in the coming years. A higher salary would elevate the status of teachers and attract more bright minds to pursue a career that is the embodiment of nation building.
Raising salaries would also significantly diversify the teacher pipeline. For years, many of our most educated people of color could only find work as educators. After some of these barriers were removed, many of the best and brightest diverse candidates are wooed to become anything but teachers. We need to bring them back to the education field. Our students and communities need them.
In 2014, for the first time, the percentage of students of color exceeded the percentage of white students in public schools. Currently, 84 percent of all public school teachers identify as white. More than 40 percent of all public schools do not have a single teacher of color.
We must diversify our teaching force to meet the needs of the students before us. The evidence is steadily mounting that students need to see teachers that share their background and culture. Many students can go throughout their elementary and secondary schooling without seeing any reflections of themselves leading their classroom.
We know from study after study that students of color are more likely to be identified as gifted, less likely to be placed in special education, and less likely to be suspended multiple times, and more motivated to achieve if they have a teacher of color. Elevating the profession is one way to attract more diversity, and, consequently, more equity for students of color. Higher salaries is one lever in improving the status of this essential career.
Men of all backgrounds cite low pay as one of the reasons to avoid leading classrooms and educating our nation’s youth.
By making the teaching profession more lucrative, we can demonstrate the priority that teaching so richly deserves. Ultimately, one of the reasons I believe that teachers are paid so poorly in so many states is because it is looked at as a female-dominated profession. Women in the USA are paid 77 cents to the dollar of men. This is an additional injustice that can be easily rectified through raising salaries.
Teaching is holy work, but educators should not be made to feel like a devout pauper.
Individuals who are dedicated to this work as their life’s mission will invariably find their way to our schools and students. However, there are swarms of potential top talent who either leave far too soon or, sadly, never even consider building our country’s future through the classroom, simply because they can make more doing far less.
No one expects to become rich by teaching. The rewards for teaching are immensely gratifying. However, the salaries of our nation’s teachers, both new and veteran, should reflect the highest priority of a country with sky-high aspirations.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.