2020 Has Shone a Light on the Importance of Good Teachers, But Many Are Paid Less Than a Living Wage in the U.S.

Tala Hadavi | CNBC
  • Teachers make about 20% less than other professionals with similar education and experience.
  • In many parts of the country, teachers live below the family living wage.
  • Up to a quarter of teachers leave the profession every year and about 20% resort to second jobs.
  • Salary increases aren't likely at the moment. However, experts suggest other solutions.

Teacher quality is the No. 1 school-related factor in student achievement. Yet, the profession is in turmoil: many earn less than a family living wage, up to a quarter of the workforce leaves teaching annually and about one-fifth are forced to seek a second job. According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers make about 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience.

"The general sentiment is we've been upping the responsibilities, the expectations, the demands on teachers at increments that are not comparable with wages at all," said Kate Dias, a high school math and statistics teacher in Manchester, Connecticut. Nearly 21 years into the profession, Kate makes about $92,000 a year.

Kate Dias, Math and Statistics teacher at Manchester High School in Manchester, Connecticut
Tala Hadavi | CNBC
Kate Dias, Math and Statistics teacher at Manchester High School in Manchester, Connecticut

That's high compared with other parts of the country. In Mississippi, the lowest-paying state, a teacher with Kate's experience and educational level earns about $50,000. Richard Ingersoll is a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He used to be a high school teacher and studies the profession closely. He attributes some of these issues to culture, dating back decades.

"There was this idea that you don't have to be that smart. It's not as complex," said Ingersoll. "Or as difficult as being an accountant, working with numbers. Or being a dentist, working with teeth."

Experts worry that some of these concerns will be increased by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately burdened teachers. But salary increases are unlikely at the moment. State tax revenues have plummeted and federal relief for teachers is uncertain.

Instead, Karen Hawley Miles, president and CEO of Education Resource Strategies, said that the best way to solve this is to restructure available money and create leadership roles. That way better teachers with more responsibilities can earn more, while those underperforming or choosing part-time work can earn less. "Experience matters, but it only matters if it leads to good teaching," she said.

Watch the video to find out why teachers earn so little in the U.S.

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