The teacher pay gap is wider than ever

Teachers’ pay continues to fall further behind pay of comparable workers

Report Published by The Economic Policy Institute

An effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes.1 Therefore it is crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers. This is increasingly challenging given that the supply of teachers has been greatly affected by high early to midcareer turnover rates, annual retirements of longtime teachers, and a decline in students opting for a teaching career.2 At the same time, many factors are increasing the demand for teachers, including shrinking class sizes, the desire to improve diversity, and the need to meet high standards. In short, the demand for teachers is escalating, while simultaneously the supply of teachers is faltering.

The supply of teachers is diminishing at every stage of the career ladder. On the front end, fewer students are entering the profession. Generally speaking, the small fraction of the most cognitively skilled college students who elect to become teachers has declined for decades (Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab 2004). Several factors have helped to drive this trend. Over the long run, employment opportunities for women have greatly expanded, and thus the teaching profession can no longer rely on what was a somewhat captive labor pool. At the same time, teachers are less satisfied and more stressed as standardized testing has been elevated as a tool for student, school, and teacher

On the back end, teachers are aging and retiring along with the workforce overall. Teacher retirements recently peaked, going from 35,000 in 1988–1989 to 87,000 in 2004–2005 (and down very slightly to 85,000 in 2008–2009) (Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey 2014). Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey (2014) argue that retiring teachers, who represent fewer than one-third of those who leave the profession, are not the primary driver behind teacher shortages. Regardless, they do represent a nontrivial annual reduction in the teacher workforce. Moreover, as teachers retire, they are replaced by newcomers, and the high attrition rate among this group is a particularly critical issue.

Teacher staffing is significantly affected by early and mid-career teachers who leave the profession for non-retirement reasons. Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey (2014, 7) document that “from 1988-89 to 2008-09, annual attrition from the teaching force as a whole rose by 41 percent, from 6.4 percent to 9 percent,” a trend driven primarily by non-retirement turnover. They conclude that teachers, who represent one of the largest occupations in the nation, have been leaving at relatively high rates, and these rates have steadily increased in recent decades. The increasing rates of attrition foster a growing instability in the teaching profession that affects classroom efficacy.

More recently, the outward flow of teachers was worsened during the Great Recession and the ensuing slow recovery. Many states made austere cuts in public spending, which included major teacher layoffs. Eight years after the economic implosion, many states have yet to return to their prerecession teacher levels, even as demand has increased.4

Darling-Hammond et al. (2016, iii) in their study of California aptly summarized the overall situation:

“On the supply side, overall desirability of teaching as a profession is the most important factor; others include ease of entry, competitiveness of salaries, and teaching conditions. Highly publicized teacher layoffs during the budget downturn left a mark on the public psyche, including that of individuals who might have been considering a teaching career. In addition, salaries were frozen and working conditions suffered during the era of cutbacks, as resource limitations led to increased class sizes, along with fewer materials and instructional supports. One sign of the impact is that only 5 percent of the students in a recent survey of college-bound students were interested in pursuing a career in education, a decrease of 16 percent between 2010 and 2014.”

At the same time, there are many important factors placing pressures on the current and future demand for teachers overall, and in selected fields and for selected purposes. First, rigorous national standards and school-based accountability for student performance have raised the demand for talented teachers.

Second, an increasingly diverse workforce and student population should be met with a more diverse teacher workforce, increasing the demand for certain types of teachers. As shown in Allegretto and Tojerow (2014), whites are overrepresented as teachers (compared with their representation in the overall workforce and, especially, the student population). Conversely, blacks are underrepresented as teachers and Latinos even more so. As Ingersoll, Merrill, and Stuckey (2014) note, there have been successful recruiting efforts of minority teachers, and these teachers are more likely to work in underserved urban communities with high poverty rates. More such efforts are required. It is also curious that nearly three-fourths of teachers are female, and that share has actually increased over time as the small share of male teachers has shrunk. One may think that more male teachers would benefit all students, but the lack of males in the profession is not well understood.

Furthermore, many locales’ mandate to shrink class sizes also affects teacher demand. Class sizes in many schools across the nation are far too large. Lastly, broadening the scope of teacher demand is the constant need to fill specialized positions, such as in math, science, and special education—positions that are increasingly difficult to fill.5 These are among the many reasons we may expect demand for teachers to continue to outstrip supply.

To address teacher shortages, it is necessary to focus on both recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. Many policies are needed to accomplish this goal, and providing appropriate compensation is a necessary, major tool in addressing shortages. As DarlingHammond et al. (2016, 18) note:

“Even if teachers may be more motivated by altruism than some other workers, teaching must compete with other occupations for talented college and university graduates. … Teachers are more likely to quit when they work in districts with lower wages and when their salaries are low relative to alternative wage opportunities, especially in high-demand fields like math and science.”

The compensation issues affecting the worsening teacher shortage concern relative teacher pay—that is, teacher pay compared with the pay of other career opportunities for potential and current teachers. For over a decade, starting with How Does Teacher Pay Compare (Allegretto, Corcoran, and Mishel 2004), we have studied the long-term trends in teacher pay. We followed this up with The Teaching Penalty, published in 2008 using 2006 data, and have updated our findings occasionally in other papers.6 Our body of work has documented the relative erosion of teacher pay. In 1960, female teachers enjoyed a wage premium compared with other college graduates. By the early 1980s, the teacher premium became a penalty, and the female teacher pay gap post-1996 has widened considerably.

Here we extend our analysis through 2015 and update our work on both wages and total compensation (wages plus benefits). (Note that throughout this report, “pay” is used as a generic term to refer to wages or compensation.) With this update, we continue to document trends in relative teacher pay and sound the alarm regarding the long-run growth in the wage and compensation penalty (also referred to in this report as a wage or compensation “gap”)—the percent by which public school teachers are paid less than comparable workers. Specifically:

  • Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was -1.8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record -17.0 percent in 2015.
  • The relative wage gap for female teachers went from a premium in 1960 to a large and growing wage penalty in the 2000s. Female teachers earned 14.7 percent more in weekly wages than comparable female workers in 1960. In 2015, we estimate a -13.9 percent wage gap for female teachers.
  • The wage penalty for male teachers is much larger. The male teacher wage gap was -22.1 percent in 1979 and improved to -15.0 percent in the mid-1990s, but worsened in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. It stood at -24.5 percent in 2015.
  • While relative teacher wage gaps have widened, some of the difference may be attributed to a tradeoff between pay and benefits. Non-wage benefits as a share of total compensation in 2015 were more important for teachers (26.6 percent) than for other professionals (21.6 percent). The total teacher compensation penalty was a record-high 11.1 percent in 2015 (composed of a 17.0 percent wage penalty plus a 5.9 percent benefit advantage). The bottom line is that the teacher compensation penalty grew by 11 percentage points from 1994 to 2015.
  • The erosion of relative teacher wages has fallen more heavily on experienced teachers than on entry-level teachers. The relative wage of the most experienced teachers has steadily deteriorated—from a 1.9 percent advantage in 1996 to a 17.8 percent penalty in 2015.
  • Collective bargaining helps to abate the teacher wage gap. In 2015, teachers not represented by a union had a -25.5 percent wage gap—and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers.


  1. We hear often that a strong teacher is the single biggest within-school factor influencing learning and student achievement, and both research and common sense affirm this. It is important to keep in mind, however, that teachers operate within a complex ecosystem of fellow teachers, school leadership, curriculum, standards, and a range of resources, including parent and community engagement, all of which have major impacts on teacher effectiveness. Indeed, as Anthony Bryk and his colleagues found in their research on school reforms in Chicago, school improvement—and thus increased achievement—is akin to baking a cak e, with five essential ingredients that constantly interact (Bryk et al. 2010). So while it’ s critically important to design policies to strengthen the teacher corps, that effort must be complemented by larger work to improve school ecosystems as a whole.
  2. The official T eacher Shortage Area list, which tracks open teacher positions across the United States, and by state since 1991, is available at http://www2. tsa.html#list. In short, compared with the early 1990s, the list is growing (Strauss 2015). For many schools the start of the school year has the added stress and pressure to fill vacant teacher positions. A t the last minute, many vacancies are filled with less-qualified teachers or administrators.
  3. NEA survey found that 75 percent of teachers are satisfied with their jobs (W alker 2014). Despite the high level of overall satisfaction, nearly half (45 percent) of surveyed member teachers have considered quitting because of standardized testing. For insights into the trends in teacher satisfaction, see Richmond (2013), which presents data from the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, conducted by Harris Interactive, which has been published annually since 1984 through 2012.
  4. Gould (2015) estimates that due to the Great R ecession and the ensuing austerity at all levels of government, public education jobs are still 236, 000 fewer than they were seven years ago . The number of teachers rose by 41, 700 over the last year . While this is clearly a positive sign, adding in the number of public education jobs that should have been created just to k eep up with enrollment, we are currently experiencing a 410 ,000 job shortfall in public education.
  5. See Darling-Hammond et al. (2016)
  6. See Allegretto, Corcoran, and Mishel (2011).