Sexism Is the Glass Ceiling That Keeps Teachers Underpaid

Educators earn less than similar professionals, and experts say the gender wage gap is to blame.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Aug 17, 2016· 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.

All work and low pay makes teaching a profession that’s in trouble. Now a new study of the salaries of public schoolteachers—nearly 80 percent of whom are women—is providing more evidence of the persistent gender wage gap.

The new study, which was produced by the Economic Policy Institute, reveals that teacher pay has plunged by nearly 20 percent compared with that of workers who have a similar level of training and education. That “teacher pay penalty,” according to the study, is roughly 10 times what it was in 1994, and it falls most heavily on veteran educators with valuable experience in the classroom.

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The pay differential between teachers—who may need a minimum of a master’s degree and professional certification before setting foot in a classroom—and other highly educated professionals is likely to hamper recruiting of new educators and retention of current ones, said EPI President Lawrence Mishel, an economist and a coauthor of the report.

“Teachers and their compensation packages have been losing ground for 20 years,” Mishel told TakePart. The profession missed out on wage increases in the labor market during the economic boom of the 1990s, he said, and “school districts have been underfunded for a lot of years.”

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Yet he also sees another factor in educators’ economic slide.

“If teaching paid so well, don’t you think more guys would become teachers?” Mishel said. It’s no coincidence, he added, that “this is the only [white-collar] profession dominated by women.”

According to the report, an update of a similar 1994 study, teacher pay has “eroded” significantly over the last five decades. In 1960, female teachers were paid more than other college graduates; by the early 1980s, “the teacher premium became a penalty, and the female teacher pay gap post-1996...widened” to a record level during the 2015 school year.

“In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers, compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994,” the report’s authors wrote. “This erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers. Importantly, collective bargaining can help to abate this teacher wage penalty.”

Though the bulk of the profession is represented by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, two of the nation’s largest labor unions, “the increase in the teacher wage penalty may be attributed to a trade-off between wages and benefits,” according to the report. “Even so, teachers’ compensation (wages plus benefits) was 11.1 percent lower than that of comparable workers in 2015.”

Despite tough bargaining over contracts, “young teachers have been getting the short straw” as entry-level salaries have fallen, Mishel said. Yet teachers haven’t seen much in the way of a pay raise compared with other workers; as a result, he said, “the salaries of experienced teachers have faded the most.”

The squeeze is accelerating downward pressure on the supply of teachers, which “is diminishing at every level” and has been for decades, according to the report. Promising teaching students are opting for better-paying jobs, unhappy mid-career teachers are following suit, and veteran teachers are retiring, the report says.

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“Several factors have helped to drive this trend,” according to the report. “Over the long run, employment opportunities for women have greatly expanded, and thus the teaching profession can no longer rely on what was a somewhat captive labor pool. At the same time, teachers are less satisfied and more stressed as standardized testing has been elevated as a tool for student, school, and teacher evaluations.”

The pay gap and the departures from the profession come at a time when fewer students than ever are considering teaching, even as communities across the country grapple with teacher shortages.

In Utah, administrators are considering allowing professionals with relevant experience in areas such as computer science or business to join the teaching ranks without having to earn teaching certification. In Arizona and California, some districts have turned to the Philippines to recruit teachers, and the U.S. Department of Education has created a directory of shortages nationwide.

At the same time, the U.S. has lagged far behind its peers in global education assessment rankings, languishing in the middle of the pack. Economists, education analysts, and President Barack Obama have all declared that the well-paying jobs of the future—and, by extension, the nation’s economy—depend on a workforce with a quality education.

To Mishel, the problems have an easy fix: Improve teacher pay. But education budgets haven’t rebounded from the Great Recession, and increases in funding aren’t likely.

Teachers “aren’t rolling in the dough,” Mishel said. “If we really want to value [and create] a quality teaching workforce, we’re going to have to pay them.”