The National Education Association just released the 2016-2017 average starting teacher salary data; state-by-state averages are on its website. The national average starting salary was $38,617 with New Jersey at $51,179 and Missouri at $31,842. Oklahoma was second lowest; it recently increased its education budget by 19 percent, only to see its teacher shortage grow larger.
Money can be a factor driving a shortage in rich communities and in select disciplines. Even within one state, the cost-of-living can vary dramatically. In affluent areas in California and Colorado, teachers cannot afford to live in the communities where they teach. In some states, affluent suburban schools hire away teachers from sparsely populated rural districts. Failure to consolidate leaves those rural students with out-of-field teachers and fewer academic opportunities.
While graduates do not enter teaching for the money, more are leaving teaching as their salaries continue to fall behind inflation. Science teachers in particular find they can double their salary in other science jobs. While there is regional variation, in most portions of the country the purchasing power of the average teacher was greatest in the early 1970s, and has fallen behind ever since. Some teachers are frustrated with lack of student discipline and lack of administrator support. The end of corporal punishment, new “no touch” policies, and the ending of out-of-school suspension have also to some teachers leaving the classroom.
Loss of teacher tenure in Kansas, and loss of new teacher tenure in North Carolina caused immediate drop-offs of college students pursuing teaching careers, actions that students nationwide witnessed.
Some states eliminated an automatic pay raise for a master’s degree. While research showed a master’s degree in education provided no student improvement, a master’s degree in math or science did raise their students’ scores. When districts threw away that incentive across-the-board, it resulted in a decrease in teachers pursing higher degrees.
Viewed across the last 20 years, the decline in teachers shows several patterns. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind external testing in the early 2000s, many high school students observed their teachers’ loss of professional authority. By the mid-2000s, it then became harder to recruit those students, now in college, into teaching when they had seen that professional erosion. At this same time, more veteran teachers were taking early retirement while a new generation of student teachers were being trained in education schools to teach to external assessments. School administrators lauded this young malleable cohort of teachers who, unlike the veteran teachers, could be ordered from above to adopt an unending array of new reforms and be rewarded with merit pay.
This era of “transformational leadership” and reform-from-above may be coming to an end. The recent Denver strike was not just about pay, but also sent a clear signal that the ProComp merit pay system of controlling teachers by awards was no longer being tolerated.
Because a major portion of each state’s general fund goes to K–12 education, the 2008 Great Recession cut school spending nationwide. While the U.S. economy has recovered and a few states have seen boosts in funding, a recently released analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds about half of state funding formulas have not recovered to pre-recession levels.
However, “dissatisfaction with how I am treated as a teaching professional” ranked highest on a survey given at the beginning of this millennium. It was a greater concern than pay or student discipline. That question has not appeared on a major teacher survey since, leading education commentators to only look at other factors. Would that item be heavily marked today…or have we now lost too many of our best?
John Richard Schrock is a professor at Emporia State University.