Commentary

U.S. teacher pay gap (possibly) worst in developed world

According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), teacher pay in the United States ranks last among the 18 OECD member nations with available data in terms of competitiveness with other professions. In the United States, primary grade (elementary) teachers’ salaries are just 57 percent of the salaries of similarly-educated workers in other professions. Similarly, the report finds that upper secondary (high school) teachers’ salaries are just 59 percent of what they might earn on average if they had pursued another career.

This salary competitiveness gap has huge implications at every level of the US education system. Teachers are the most important classroom factor when it comes to improving student performance. The impact is especially pronounced for low-income and minority students. It’s therefore vital that schools attract and retain the most talented candidates possible into the teaching profession. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of potentially wonderful teaching candidates refuse to even consider teaching as a viable profession due to pay concerns.

Countries with high-performing education systems understand the importance of attracting and retaining high-quality teaching candidates into the profession. Every other country studied pays more competitive teacher salaries than the United States. For example, teachers in the United Kingdom earn salaries approximately 80 percent of their peers in other professions. In the much-lauded Finnish school system, upper secondary teacher salaries are essentially on par with the salaries offered by other professionals.

Of course, North Carolina teacher salaries are especially non-competitive. The Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of teacher salaries from 2011 to 2015 found North Carolina had the second-least competitive teacher salaries in the country. My own analysis of US Census data from 2010 to 2014 found that North Carolina teachers earned about 57 percent of other similarly-educated professionals in the state. North Carolina’s teachers would require pay raises between 25 to 43 percent to start earning just 80 percent of their similarly-educated North Carolina peers in other professions.

Thankfully, the state has made some progress on teacher pay. The most recently-passed budget should increase average teacher pay in the state by about 6.6 percent over the upcoming biennium, and enrollment in UNC system education programs has increased for the first time since at least 2010. These are positive signs, but the OECD report is a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done to develop a world-class teaching profession in North Carolina.

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