Midcareer Teachers Love Their Jobs, but Many Can’t Afford to Keep Them

A new study shows some experienced teachers are paid so little—less than long-haul truckers or factory workers—they qualify for welfare.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Most teachers say the thrill of helping children learn, not the paycheck, led them to the profession. But a new report shows that some highly skilled, experienced teachers can’t make ends meet on their salaries—and in 47 states, the average salary for seasoned educators is so low that they qualify for multiple federal programs, such as welfare and food stamps.

The report, released by the Center for American Progress, also found that as many as 25 percent of experienced teachers take on second jobs to get by, the base pay for teachers with a decade or more under their belts averages around $35,000, and the highest average salary barely tops $58,000. At a time when the debate on education reform has focused on standards and test scores, the report states, few policy makers are talking about upgrading teacher salaries as part of the overhaul.

“Low teacher pay is not news. Over the years, all sorts of observers have argued that skimpy teacher salaries keep highly qualified individuals out of the profession,” states the report. “One recent study found that a major difference between the education system in the United States and those in other nations with high-performing students is that the United States offers much lower pay to educators.”

Yet teachers shouldn’t expect a pay hike anytime soon. When teacher pay hits the public agenda, the discussion tends to focus on attracting entry-level teachers and not compensating midcareer ones. Meanwhile, tight budgets—and frequently, antagonistic relations between school managers and teachers’ unions—make it harder for midcareer instructors to get raises.

More typical is the nasty, high-profile 2012 fight between Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s teachers’ union. After months of negotiations, the union went on strike for better pay, temporarily shutting down the school system.

The goal of the CAP report “was to learn more about the salaries of mid- and late-career teachers and see if wages were high enough to attract and keep the nation’s most talented individuals,” it states. “This research relied on a variety of databases, the results of which are deeply troubling.”

The report concluded that the pay scale for highly trained, experienced teachers is “painfully low,” and in several states, as heads of households of four or more, they would qualify for “federally funded benefit programs designed for families needing financial support.” In Arizona and North Dakota, the report says, teachers and their families meet the standards for several programs, including free school lunches and government-subsidized health care.

In some states, according to the report, educators with graduate degrees earn less than long-haul truckers (Colorado), sheet-metal workers (Oklahoma), and flight attendants (Georgia). “What’s more, teachers have fewer opportunities to grow their salaries compared to other professions,” according to the report.

Additionally, in 11 states, more than 20 percent of teachers have second jobs—and not just during the summer; in places such as Maine, the number reaches 25 percent. “In these 11 states, the average base salary for a teacher with 10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree is merely $39,673—less than a carpenter’s national average salary,” reads the report.

“The good news is that some places—including the District of Columbia; Portland, Maine; and Baltimore, Maryland—have begun to address the issue” by offering bonus pay and incentives to keep midcareer teachers in the classroom. In Baltimore, for example, if teachers hit benchmarks and demonstrate effectiveness, their pay can reach up to $100,000.

The report concludes that higher pay alone won’t help retain midcareer teachers; school districts and municipalities must also improve working conditions. Still, “as a nation, we need to do far more to attract—and keep—mid- and late-career teachers,” it states. “In the end, if we truly want to retain top talent in our classrooms, we need to offer top-talent salaries.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.