District Trendline

Upping the ante: The current state of teacher pay in the nation's large school districts

See all posts

During the pandemic, parents have witnessed the heroic efforts of their children's teachers—tailoring lessons for online learning, adapting to hybrid schedules, and regularly reaching out to parents and students. As we close in on one year of lockdown, we examine how resources are being used to recruit and retain effective teachers.

The first stated goal in the "Biden Plan for Educators, Students, and Our Future" is to "(s)upport our educators by giving them the pay and dignity they deserve." During the campaign, Vice President Harris highlighted the pay gap between teachers and other similarly educated professionals, which has been estimated to be between 13% and 20% on average.

Given the current state of teacher salaries and salary-related policies in the U.S., what challenges exist to make better pay for teachers a reality? Here we examine the salary schedules and salary-related policies of 124 large school districts across the country, including the 100 overall largest districts in the U.S. in addition to the largest district in each state.

Current teacher salaries and trends

According to the latest available salary schedules in our sample, the salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree ranges from approximately $35,000 to just above $59,000, adjusted for cost of living.

The average starting salary is $45,422, compared to $44,256 a year ago (adjusted for regional price differences). Over the last two years, this salary figure has grown by 2.3% annually, a rate outpacing inflation by half a percentage point.

According to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the average starting salary for a class of 2018 college graduate was $50,944, about $6,000 more than that of a first-year teacher in the last couple of years. Of the districts in our sample, 97 of the 124 offered cost-of-living adjusted starting salaries below that number. These figures suggest that the pay gap for the average starting teacher is about 15%.

One clear challenge to addressing the teacher pay gap is funding, especially while the U.S. economy is still immersed in a recession and school districts' expenditures are closely tied with tax revenue (which in turn is highly dependent on the economy's ability to produce goods and services).

Limited salary increases this year

In a "normal" year, some salary increases are related to performance evaluations. About one-fourth of the districts in our sample use actual evaluation ratings to determine how much of a salary increase a teacher gets, while another one-fourth refer to evaluation ratings to decide who does not get an increase. In other districts, evaluation ratings are only one part of the salary increase calculation.

However, in light of the many additional challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has created for the teaching profession, it is sensible to disconnect teacher evaluations from high-stakes personnel decisions this year. According to NCTQ's analysis of memoranda of understanding between teachers unions and school districts during this pandemic, most districts have done this already.

Beyond the absence of evaluation-related raises, salaries are likely to continue to be restricted due to budget constraints. Data published by the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University shows the budget analysis of 441 districts during the 2020-2021 school year with 10% of them stipulating salary freezes.

Incentivizing teachers to teach where the needs are higher

A report from The Century Foundation indicates that "(l)ow-income school districts are more than twice as likely to have a funding gap as higher income districts" and that "(t)he average gap in these districts is more than $6,700 per pupil." The new Biden Administration has signalled its intent to close this funding gap, potentially through Title I funds, and to require districts to use those funds to offer teachers competitive salaries.

Simply closing the funding gap is of limited value. Better pay is key in attracting talent where it is most needed. A recent Educators For Excellence survey found that 89% of teachers are in favor of financial incentives for working in high-needs schools, and the endorsement of such a strategy is more prevalent among teachers of color.

Where do districts stand in terms of offering better salaries for those teaching high-needs populations or hard-to-staff subjects? Only 38% of the districts in our sample (47 of 124) offer differentiated pay incentives for teachers in schools defined as high-needs, an improvement of eight percentage points since our 2017 calculation.

The good news is that more districts seem to appreciate the role of salaries in attracting and retaining teachers into what otherwise may be perceived as more challenging positions. Compared to 43 districts in 2017, today only 33 districts in our sample of 124 have yet to embrace any form of strategic pay incentives.

While school districts are relatively more likely to offer differentiated pay to incentivize teaching hard-to-staff subjects (nearly 70% of the districts in our sample do so), they seem slower to offer incentives for teaching in a high-needs school. One notable exception is Columbus City Schools (OH), where teachers with at least five years of experience, a recommendation from their principal, and a proven record of student achievement using objective measures may apply to teach at a high-needs school. Those accepted are eligible for a $4,000 bonus.

The following figure shows the general distribution of starting salaries and high-needs populations. The overall trend may be positive, but the disparities are also large. It is not surprising that some of the districts farther below the average trendline are the ones that more often wrestle with high turnover and shortage issues.

Pay for educational attainment

In many school districts across the country, attaining additional education (i.e., a master's degree) is compensated with additional pay, even though there is broad consensus in the research that teachers do not become more effective after earning advanced degrees. Research shows, indeed, that increased effectiveness with a more advanced degree is only evident in a few areas, such as math and sciences. But for many teachers under current systems, getting a master's degree is a certain path to a higher salary.

Despite the majority of the districts in our sample (111 out of 124) offering additional pay for additional education, data from the last two years indicates that these premiums are not as large compared to premiums in other professions. A study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, on average, someone with a master's degree earned a $12,000/year premium over someone with a bachelor's degree, while the average annual premium of a master's degree for a public school teacher has remained slightly over $5,000/year.

This premium is even smaller for beginning teachers: $2,878 on average. In fact, 105 districts in our sample offer a master's premium of less than $5,000 for a beginner teacher.

Obtaining an advanced degree while working is probably the most affordable route for most teachers, given that half of the districts in our sample explicitly offer some type of tuition reimbursement.

District policy that improves a teacher's base salary and promotes incentives to teach hard-to-staff subjects or in high-need schools will likely benefit schools and teachers more than policies focusing on incentives to achieve higher degrees. If adequate salary paths were available to most teachers, many of them might not have to unnecessarily pursue more advanced degrees.

Aldine Independent School District (TX) and Hillsborough County Public Schools (FL) have moved away from paying advanced degree premiums. Instead, both have adopted policies to provide better starting salaries, and better pay for teachers in high-needs schools and more effective teachers.

Improving pay for teachers is an investment in the quality of the teacher workforce, which has been shown to increase learning opportunities for all students. It is not just about more money, but rather how current money is allocated for talent recruitment and retention tools within the compensation system. The problem of how to improve salaries for underpaid teachers is not new. Over the years, many suggestions for strengthening fiscal positions to increase teacher salaries have been made, such as proposing federal action, re-examining pension burdens, and re-evaluating how school districts operate. It will take states, districts, and teachers unions working together to find a feasible, sustainable solution.