The Salary Lowdown

June 3rd, 2010 by Andrea Bennett

A guide for teachers just starting out.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The good news for new teachers: Entering the profession no longer necessarily means expecting a “flat” pay schedule, in which the only financial reward you’ll ever see is a pension at the end of 20 to 30 years of minimal cost-of-living increases. The bad news: So-called “alternative pay” programs are different from state to state, and represent a bedeviling mix of merit pay options (like being rewarded for a subjective evaluation, or your students’ test scores) and incentive programs.

All these special programs – each with its own clever acronym – are piled atop wage schedules that vary wildly from state to state, and even district to district. The National Education Association is advocating for a $40,000 starting salary across the board for new teachers — which likely sounds great to some teachers in Maine and Utah, who, according to research by the American Federation of Teachers, started the 2006-2007 school year making less than $29,000. (The national average for those years was $50,816 according to the National Center for Education Statistics; though keep in mind that, by some estimates, as much as half of the teacher workforce comprises baby boomers whose higher salaries push the average up.)

Until starting teachers are guaranteed that $40,000 flat entry rate (if it happens), they’ll still have to research salaries themselves. If you are a new teacher, and have the freedom to move for your ideal job, a good place to start is by scanning salary maps like the NEA’s. But that won’t give you the complete picture: Keep in mind that often the states with the most attractive compensation packages — such as California, Connecticut, and New Jersey — often have costs of living that far outpace the salary differences. And, says AFT spokesman George Jackson, states’ averages don’t necessarily reflect the salary you’ll make: “One school district within a state can have very different salaries. It can throw off the whole average.”

The AFT publishes a teacher salary survey, which Jackson says is created “literally by surveying all the school districts and compiling their pay schedules.” The last was published in 2007 and held good news for beginning teachers: Salary growth was up 6.2 percent for them versus an increase of 4.5 percent for teachers overall — both outpacing the 2.8 percent rate of inflation. Still, around 20 percent of new public school teachers leave teaching by the end of their first year, and almost half leave within five years, according to the NEA; much of the turnover is pay-related. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have a salary and benefits package you can live with. This toolbox of resources can help you get started.

Do a general state-by-state search.

Despite differences from district to district, doing a general statewide salary search is a good place to start, particularly if you can put that into the context of the cost of living. In addition to the NEA salary map, check out Certification Map; it’s based on the NEA salary survey, but also links you to each state’s education department homepage, where, in most cases, you can drill down into district-by-district salary schedules. It lists the 10 highest and 10 lowest average salaries by state, followed by all 50 states in order of highest to lowest compensation. Certification Map also breaks out the teacher salary versus state average salary, number of years to tenure, number of vacation weeks per year, and the states from which each place will accept teaching credentials. Once you’ve found raw numbers, the information at Teaching Tips will help you put it in context. For instance, Teaching Tips reveals that, although salaries for Wisconsin teachers rank 26th based on averages, that is skewed in favor of more experienced teachers; new teachers make salaries that rank 49th in the nation. Still, this marks an increase from years past, and Wisconsin’s relatively low cost of living makes stretching your teaching dollar easier.

Calculate your true potential earnings.

NEA’s USA salary calculator is intended for teachers who want to calculate their true hourly wage and then “take [it] to your school board, your governor, or the bargaining table and show them why teachers are worth professional pay.” But the calculator is also useful for teachers who have done initial research and want to take it one step further, by figuring out their true, per hour earning potential. (Note: be sure to use a consistent ballpark guess to fill in fields like the number of hours you’ll spend grading papers at home and shopping for school supplies.)

Familiarize yourself with states’ incentive programs.

“Merit pay” is a soon-to-be antiquated term for rewarding teachers, often based on evaluations (often subjective) by principals. “Pay-for-performance” is the newer term for merit pay, which can include rewards for evaluations, test scores, or other gauges of success. “Shortage areas” describe disciplines that are traditionally difficult to staff, such as some foreign languages, or specialty math or science classes, which may carry financial incentives. “Hard to staff schools,” such as schools with high percentages of poor, minority schools are also now sometimes incentivized by school districts.

Some of the newest advances in alternative pay can be lucrative for new teachers, including additional pay for National Board Certification or advanced degrees or for gaining new knowledge through professional development.

In fact, according to the NEA, around 37 states plus the District of Columbia have alternative compensation systems in place, with more on the way. You can find the latest news at Another good source for updates is the nonprofit group ECI (Educator Compensation Institute), which details alternative compensation examples on its website and streams the latest legislation on its homepage.