Salaries in Public Education

September 8th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

A superintendent rejects his high salary to restore public confidence.

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The Responsibility Project

This year, Fresno County School Superintendent Larry Powell will make $10,000 less than the average first-year teacher in his region, and he’s giving up his benefits, according to The Boston Globe. In an area with some of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Powell felt that the other $288,241 of his yearly salary could be put to better use in the public educational system.

After Southern California city officials secretly boosted their salaries, Powell felt for a frustrated public. He told the Globe, “It’s hard to believe that someone in the public trust would do that to the public. My wife and I asked ourselves `What can we do that might restore confidence in government?’”

Powell’s goal of restoring confidence in the government’s ability to allocate taxpayer dollars toward public education hits a national chord. Specifically, Americans are increasingly concerned about teachers’ wages. 

As a superintendent, Powell’s salary was clearly well above the average salary in public education. But how much are teachers worth in your district? Are you a teacher wondering what your salary should be? Here are some resources to begin your research on teacher salaries in your community.

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 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 NEA.org. 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.

(A portion of this story was previously published as “The Salary Lowdown” on The Responsibility Project on 6/3/10)