Teacher Salaries Have Increased Significantly Over Time — Or Have They?

5 min read
teacher salary with masters

Decline in Inflation-Adjusted Teacher Pay Draws Spotlight to Value of Education

The teaching profession is often talked about as being undervalued in terms of salary.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the following sentiment being expressed (often by a politician): Teachers provide such a valuable service to our society — educating our citizens and leaders of the future — we should pay them what they’re worth.

Depending on what state you live in, significant progress has been made in recent decades. However, for many educators, hard work for relatively modest pay is typically part of the job. Teacher salaries with a master’s degree are somewhat higher, with many educators using the advanced degree path to move into higher-paying jobs in administration or other opportunities outside the classroom.

Teacher pay has definitely gone up over time. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the annual average salary for U.S. public elementary and secondary schools teachers was just $8,626 back in 1969 — it increased to $58,950 by 2017 and is approximately $60,000 today.

But, of course, that doesn’t take into account inflation (aka, the rising cost of … everything). And if you’ve been keeping up on the news, some of the headlines are not particularly encouraging:

You don’t have to be an advanced math teacher to understand that even though salaries are rising, actual inflation-adjusted buying power is in decline.

Read on to take a closer look at this troubling phenomenon and ongoing efforts to change the status quo, the wide disparity in teacher pay between states and analysis of U.S. Department of Education salary data over the past 50 years.

Declines in Relative Teacher Pay [The Numbers and the Impact]

Of course, the education field is not the only sector of the U.S. economy in which salary increases fail to keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living. But this scenario has increasingly come under the spotlight in the way it affects the teaching profession.

Fortunately, along with this spotlight comes an increasing awareness of the fact that failure to address pay inequities threatens to undermine the education infrastructure — and by extension the quality of education delivered to students.

An EdSurge.com report on National Education Association (NEA) reveals that inflation-adjusted pay for educators (compared against the Consumer Price Index) has decreased as much as 15% between 2000 and 2017.

Of course, teachers are motivated by much more than money — for many, signs that they are making a difference in their students’ lives are considerably more important than dollar signs. However, the economic reality continues to be that there is a strong connection between lower salaries and higher teacher turnover, a phenomenon explored in a report by the Learning Policy Institute.

A survey by Payscale.com found that “teachers at all levels report consistently high levels of job meaning; but they also report consistently low rates of pay.” Those reporting high job meaning included 96% of postsecondary English language and literature teachers. The report also found that “more than 80% of kindergarten, middle school and secondary school teachers say their job makes the world a better place.”

However, there is evidence that the percentage of teachers leaving the teaching profession has increased significantly in the past 25 years. Teacher turnover is now reportedly twice as high in the U.S. as in many other countries, including high-performing nations such as Finland and Singapore.

The idea that the relative decline of teacher salaries is a problem deserving of attention is also reflected in public opinion. The American Progress Institute cites a New York Times poll in which nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults believe that teacher pay is too low, and two-thirds even support increasing taxes to raise the salaries of public school teachers.

Wide Disparity in Teacher Salaries By State

Part of the multi-faceted problem is that there are also drastic differences when you examine salaries by state. BusinessInsider.com reports that the average salary for a public school teacher nationwide was $60,483 during the 2017-2018 academic year (the most recent for which data is available) — but this includes salaries ranging from $83,585 in New York down to $43,107 in Mississippi.

Additional findings from the American Progress Institute report include the following:

  • As of the 2015-16 school year, 18% of U.S. teachers worked second jobs outside the school system. Teachers are about 30% more likely than non-teachers to work a second job.
  • In many states, teachers earn so little that they qualify for public benefits. Because of low salaries, mid-career teachers in 2014 qualified for up to seven benefit programs in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota and South Dakota

Teacher Protests Drawing Attention to Pay Inequities

News reports from around the country describe 2018 as “the school year teachers reached their breaking point.”

“From West Virginia to Arizona, they walked out en masse to protest at their state capitols. Many were tired of working multiple jobs and wanted higher salaries,” CNN reported. “Even more demanded better school funding for their students to replace crumbling textbooks and archaic supplies.”

Some of the highest-profile protests occurred in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere. But it wasn’t just teachers in states that rank on the low end of the salary charts. The same complaints that prompted educator unrest around the country were also felt in California, which saw a teacher strike in Sacramento and in Los Angeles.

Teacher Pay By State (1969-Present)

So yes, teacher salaries have increased significantly over the past 50 years. For example, a teacher in Mississippi — historically one of the lowest paying states — averaged just $5,798 in 1969-70. That figure doubled to $11,850 in 1979-80 and climbed as high as $51,103 in 2009-2010. It then tumbled to $42,925 in 2016-17, the most recent year available in a comprehensive look at teacher salaries over the decades compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Several additional interesting observations of note:

  • California is one of the teacher salary leaders, then and now — ranking third at $10,315 in 1969-70 (trailing only New York and Alaska) and rising to $78,711 in 2016-17 (second behind New York).
  • Using figures calculated in “constant 2016-17 dollars,” the U.S. average, which reached a high of $61,804 in 2009-10, fell to $58,950 by 2016-17, its lowest since 1989-90.

Inflation-adjusted statistics show that 14 states have seen losses greater than 6% since 1999-2000

Another window into the wide disparities on education spending by state comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. Though U.S. per-pupil school spending increased for the fifth consecutive year in 2019, there are massive differences between the “haves” and “have nots.”

Example: The top-spending state (New York at $23,091) invests nearly triple the amount per pupil each year than the lowest-spending state (Utah at $7,179). In fact, the Empire State spends more per student than the three lowest-spending states combined — Utah, Idaho ($7,486) and Oklahoma ($7,940).

The University of San Diego’s online Master of Education degree program keeps a close eye on a wide range of educational issues. For example, MEd blog post topics include:

Find more informative posts (and sign up for news updates) at the University of San Diego MEd blog page.

Top 11 Reasons to get Your Master of Education Degree

Free 22-page Book