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Lesson 3.8

Teacher Pay:
How much are teachers paid?

Great teachers should get paid more, right? Unless…

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Teacher pay is by far the largest cost of operating a school.

People choose to become teachers for many reasons, but getting rich is not among them. As a job, teaching is steady, secure work — usually with good benefits and the promise of a solid pension in retirement. But the pay is modest, especially for new teachers.

This lesson explains how teacher pay systems usually work, how teacher pay compares to other work, and some alternative approaches that have been proposed, including systems of merit pay.

New teachers are poorly paid

Many new teachers begin their career saddled with college debt. It's common for them to struggle to find places they can afford to live, and it is common for teachers to work second jobs.

The Teacher Salary Project documents the economic struggles of teachers and the impact that it has on children.

In decades long past, teaching was once perceived as a relatively lucrative profession for women, whose professional options were constrained. This premium has evaporated.

According to the California Department of Education, the average annual pre-tax salary for teachers in 2021-22 was $88,508, with a lot of variation. Beginning teachers made about $50,000, and the highest-paid teachers made a little more than $100,000. Teacher pay tends to be higher in areas where the cost of living is higher.

How has teacher pay changed?

Taking the long view, average teacher pay in the USA has basically kept pace with inflation. Average pay for teachers has floated along a bit better in California than it has in other states:

Unfortunately, keeping up with inflation is a very low bar for a profession that requires a college degree. Since the 1980s, pay for teachers in America has lagged comparable employment, as described in Lesson 3.1.

Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied teacher compensation for many years. The EPI analysis incorporates survey data from all over the US, including reported hours worked, salaries, bonuses, benefits, gender, age, experience, union membership and geography. According to the EPI 2023 analysis, after expanding for years, the national wage gap for teachers in America reached another all-time high in 2022. Pay for teachers in California is higher than it is in most states, so the gap is smaller.

Why aren't more men teaching? Pay is certainly part of the story. In 2022, men teaching in U.S. public school made 36.6 percent less in wages than men in other comparable professions according to the EPI analysis.

Teacher pay in California is probably better than the EPI annual survey suggests. Teachers are public employees, so their actual pay is public record. (Yes, you really can look up an individual public school teacher's pay.) Improved computational power has made it possible to crunch the data in a way that wasn't feasible when EPI developed its annual survey. In 2023, an analysis by Transparent California argued that the EPI methodology systematically underestimates teacher pay.

Other countries pay teachers better

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) collects data about public education from around the world, including data about teacher pay. According to OECD data from 2022, The wage gap for teachers is much worse in America than it is in most other developed countries.

Teacher pay varies by school district

Teacher salaries and other compensation are local decisions, typically negotiated between local school districts and local teacher unions. In these negotiations, the local cost of living is an essential factor. What drives differences in the cost of living? More than any other factor the answer is rent. In 2019, EdSource researched housing affordability for teachers in the state, finding that many of the areas where teachers are paid the most are where teachers can least afford to live.

School districts are very sensitive to the local cost of living. Where rents are high, teacher pay has to be high, too. In 2018, the St. Louis Fed studied the correlation. A picture paints a thousand words:

The district salary schedule sets teacher pay

Teacher pay rates are usually determined by just two things: years worked in the district and number of postgraduate credits earned as recognized by that district.

Teachers in virtually all U.S. public schools are paid according to a rigidly defined single salary schedule. If you know the number of years a teacher has worked in a district (steps) and the number of postgraduate college credits the teacher has completed (columns or lanes), you can determine their pay. This information is usually presented as a table, but for our purposes a line graph is better. Below are some simplified salary schedules from districts in 2023.

In these graphs, teachers begin their career on the left, usually following the lowest line, marked BA (bachelor's degree). Over time, pay for teachers with just a BA degree rises, but teachers can boost their pay if they qualify to jump to a higher line in the chart by earning additional college credits.

The line charts above simplify the system a bit by basing everything on B.A. and units. Many districts accelerate steps in the schedule for teachers that earn a master's degree or Ph.D. Some districts adjust the schedule or offer bonuses to those who teach in hard-to-fill positions. But the big picture is consistent. Salaries are a factor of years of service and college study.

A few caveats are in order. First, this lesson is narrowly about teacher paychecks based on their primary pay as teachers. In some districts, teachers earn additional amounts for other work like coaching, mentoring, or serving as a crossing guard. Second, as we will discuss in Ed100 Lesson 3.11, pensions are a profoundly important part of the overall pay system for teachers. You have to read that lesson. Non-salary benefits like health insurance are important, too, as explained in Ed100 Lesson 3.7.

Are teacher salary schedules good or bad?

Historical context: Salary schedules came into common use in the late 1800s as a way to make pay systems easier to administer. Early differentiated salary schedules were explicitly racist and sexist — districts had multiple schedules that specified the different amounts people were paid for the same work. Establishing a single salary schedule was an important aim of movements for change in the 1920s, beginning with Denver and Des Moines. In 1974, education historian Jean Protsik estimated that 97 percent of all schools used single salary schedules by the end of the 1950s.

The good news: Single salary schedules all but erased discriminatory pay practices related to gender and ethnicity in education. They also reduced the scope for jealousy, conflict, and drama about pay. The system is what it is for all teachers. Don't like it? Get a side hustle for the summer or after school, but don't imagine that somebody else in the break room is making bank at your expense.

The bad news is that the single salary schedule system has played a role in making the teaching profession significantly less competitive in comparison to better-paying work. It is rigidly indifferent to expertise, effectiveness, and market conditions. Teachers typically earn the same regardless of whether they teach effectively or ineffectively, whether they teach a subject that requires general knowledge or specialized knowledge, whether they teach many children or just a handful, and whether or not they bring out the best in their colleagues.

As shown in the charts above, the single salary schedule system provides two ways to earn more money as a teacher: keep teaching (without changing school districts), and take more college classes. Unfortunately, as discussed in Lesson 3.5, these incentives are misaligned with the interests of students. Other than in STEM subjects, there is no evidence that earning more college credits makes teachers better at their job.

The related subjects of teacher tenure and seniority will be explored in Lesson 3.10.

Alternative approaches to teacher pay

Some argue that teacher pay systems need to change in big ways in order to attract and motivate top talent and serve students effectively. In various places, reform-minded advocates in districts and unions have suggested that the salary model should be "on the table" in district and union dialogue about strategies for change. This section summarizes some of the key ideas and what's known about them.

Elements of alternative teacher pay models

Reforms related to teacher pay propose to revise the salary schedule (or replace it altogether) in order to change the incentive structure. (See puzzle graphic for examples.)

Should teachers be paid for performance?

All elements of an alternative compensation (altcomp) program are controversial, but none more so than performance pay, sometimes also known as merit pay. Pay-based incentives are common in business, especially in sales roles. Many businesspeople regard it as self-evident that teacher pay should vary with performance, too.

Yes, it's been tried.
Federal competitive grant programs have enabled significant experiments in performance pay systems for teachers. Under the Bush Administration, the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) committed several hundred million dollars to support programs that included a performance pay component. Under the Obama Administration, the much larger Race to the Top (RTT) and School Improvement Fund (SIF) programs also provided support for alternative compensation plans in schools with high concentrations of low-income students.

Many teachers, by contrast, regard it as self-evident that such incentives are patronizing because if teachers were in it for the money they would choose another line of work.

In 2009, Daniel Pink brought attention to the motivational risks of pay for performance in his bestseller Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The heart of Pink’s thesis is that intrinsic motivation comes from a desire to achieve mastery, autonomy, and purpose. He presents evidence that conditional pay incentives can actually interfere with that drive.

Does teacher merit pay work?

If your school or district is considering changes to the way teachers are paid, prepare for a bumpy ride. Do your homework.

The short answer is no. Experiments with pay-for-performance trials have repeatedly produced disappointing results in the USA and other developed markets (OECD) Paychecks can serve as a nudge factor in a teacher's decision to stay at a school or in a role, but they appear to have little or no influence in day-to-day work. A decade of experiments in U.S. states based on the federal Teacher Incentive Fund program suggest that merit pay designs are great at producing conflict, mistrust, confusion and distraction, but lousy at producing measurable positive results.

Most tests of incentive systems for teachers have been modest, offering only small bonuses and producing no clear benefit. Some argue that such experiments are merely too tentative. An evaluation of the most aggressive of all pay-for-performance plans, the IMPACT program in Washington, D.C., showed some results… mainly by spurring low-performing teachers to quit! Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University who comments extensively on flaws in the interpretation of data about education results, questions whether getting teachers to quit actually counts as a positive result.

Modest changes

The National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) inspects the teacher contracts of America's largest districts to track changes. According to an analysis in 2021, teacher evaluations were in some way connected to salary increases in nearly half of them. Evaluation practices can vary widely, as we will discuss in Ed100 Lesson 3.9.

Like many states, California has a chronic shortage of teachers with the proper credentials to teach students with special education needs. In order to attract candidates and fill positions without burning out unprepared teachers, the 2021 budget included an investment of $90 million into tuition fellowships for aspiring teachers who committed to teach subjects with shortages, including special education.

If your school or district is considering changes to the way teachers are paid, prepare for a bumpy ride, particularly if the program involves judgments about performance. You can add a lot to the conversation by doing the homework that others may avoid. It is a much more complex topic than most believe, and the evidence of impact from past attempts is weak compared to the certainty of distracting conflict associated with attempting it. It's helpful to view Laney's story, the video at the top of this lesson, and consider what she needs to be successful.

Updated November 2023


Teacher pay in virtually all California public schools is based on:

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Todd Maddison November 7, 2023 at 11:21 am
Basing teacher pay on printed salary schedules and self-reported survey numbers, as the EPI does - at best misleading.

Actual data – from payroll records – paints a completely different picture. In 2022 from the data so far median total pay of a full-time certificated employee (90%+ “teachers”), was $102,636. Total compensation $134,437. Adding in the additional retirement compensation, a private employee would need to make $119K to take home the same money while funding their retirement equally.

The EPI wants teachers paid commensurate with their education. The US Census Bureau says comparably educated private workers made $91,129 (based on estimates, full 2022 data not yet available). That’s $28,000 less than a teacher’s compensation.

I’m very glad we can afford to pay teachers well, but maybe if we used the real data to show teaching is not a poorly paid occupation (at least in CA), we might get more people attracted to the profession?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 7, 2023 at 6:29 pm
Thanks, Todd -- Useful comments, and I appreciated our phone call. I've edited this lesson to incorporate some of your points, especially the Transparent California critique of EPI's data about teacher compensation. As we discussed, pensions (a HUGE part of the overall compensation picture) are the subject of a different lesson (3.11).
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 5:35 pm
From the National Education Association

Average educator pay has failed to keep up with inflation. Teachers are making $3,644 less, on average, than they did 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation.

Nearly 40% of all education support professionals working full-time in K-12 schools earn less than $25,000 per year. More than a third of all education support professionals (K-12 and higher education combined) working full-time earn less than $25,000 annually.

Teachers earn 25% more, on average, in states with collective bargaining, and school support staff earn 15% more. In addition, higher education faculty in unions earn about $4,000 more than non-union faculty in the same states.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 5:31 pm
How Much Do Teachers Get Paid?
See New State-by-State Data from EdWeek April 2023

2021-22 2022-23 increase
California $88,508 $90,151 1.86%
user avatar
Bianca 4S February 25, 2023 at 8:54 am
Another issue, and it's unclear if it's addressed in these analyses, (and thank you to Ed100 for the exceptional work), is that increasingly districts are capping benefits for teachers. It used to be that a teacher's low wages were somewhat balanced by a generous health and medical plan for the family, most districts can only afford to offer full benefits to the employee, which is tantamount to serious wage cut for the teachers in those districts. The answer is not to cut teacher salaries but to adequately fund education.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 2, 2023 at 3:05 pm
Thanks, Bianca -- Benefits are addressed in Ed100 Lesson 3.7, and pensions (potentially the biggest benefit of them all -- even bigger than regular pay) are addressed in Lesson 3.11.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 8, 2022 at 5:04 am
2022 state by state policy comparison from NCTQ:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 8, 2022 at 5:04 am
2022 state by state policy comparison from NCTQ:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 1:09 pm
California Teacher Compensation
The Legislative Analyst provides an updated 2020-21 look at teacher pay in school districts throughout California. School districts and teacher unions typically negotiate compensation packages, with the graphic showing the average package offered by districts in a county. The benefits component includes health, dental, and vision coverage but excludes other benefits, most notably pension contributions.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 5, 2022 at 4:47 pm

Teacher Salaries: A Key Factor in Recruitment and Retention: Learning Policy Institute
" Among teachers under 40 who left the profession during the pandemic, the top reason for their departure was that the pay was insufficient to merit the risk or stress of the job
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 5, 2022 at 3:39 pm
The Decline in Average Teacher Pay: National Education Association Report
Teacher Salaries Aren't Keeping Up with Inflation
Teachers are making $2,179 less, on average, than they did 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation
Find data for each state:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 23, 2022 at 11:37 pm
Understanding teacher compensation: A state by state analysis
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 15, 2022 at 3:32 pm
The case for paying all teachers 6 figures.

“Covid-19 revealed how teachers — in addition to nurturing, protecting and mentoring our children — are essential to a smoothly running society. It’s time to pay them accordingly.”
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 22, 2022 at 3:52 pm
The combination of staff scarcity and temporary federal funding during the pandemic led to some new approaches to teacher pay according to this report by Edunomics Lab, which concludes that "An impressive number of districts have implemented stipends and other incentives that represent strategic, nimble, and financially responsible ways of compensating teachers."
None of the examples cited are in California.
user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 11:46 am
I feel so much for teachers. The amount of time teachers spend that in unpaid (planning, grading, etc) at home as well as supplies paid for from their classroom to enhance their students’ experiences is not calculated.

Although the rates in California may seem competitive, as the article states, it truly is skimpy.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 8, 2021 at 6:15 pm
Update on teacher salary comparison: US vs European countries.. And it's not good news.
The US has slipped from third to last to second to last.
user avatar
christian park November 19, 2020 at 7:13 pm
I have a question. Are the analyses of teacher salary versus comparably educated other workers based on annual salary? Is this adjusted to reflect the fewer weeks of work performed by teachers (who don't work during school breaks) versus other workers who typically work year-round with 2 or 3 weeks of paid vacation per year? Just trying to grasp the scope of the difference.
user avatar
Jeff Camp December 11, 2020 at 5:21 pm
Yes, Dr. Allegretto's analysis is based on weekly pay, so it adjusts for summer. Quoting her: "There are two measurement issues whenever there is discussion of teacher pay. One is that teachers have the “summers off,” so annual earnings are an inappropriate guide for wage comparisons. Two, teachers have good health and pension benefits that must be taken into account. We directly address these issues, the first by examining the weekly earnings of teachers compared with other college graduates and the second by adjusting our estimates of the weekly wage penalty for differences in benefits. "
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 24, 2020 at 10:28 am
The California Department of Education maintains a summary of salary levels for teachers and administrators at . In general, bigger districts have higher administrator pay but spend less on administration as a percentage.
user avatar
Jeff Camp April 28, 2019 at 3:55 pm
California spends its education dollars on teacher salaries at a level unusual among the states, according to an analysis by the Fordham Foundation. "California is not exactly a low-spending state, yet it’s at the top of the list... it needs to pay more to have any chance at recruiting quality teachers."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 18, 2018 at 6:39 am
Low Teacher Salaries 101
This paper takes a state-by-state look at education spending levels, teacher salaries, and how salary levels correlate with turnover, staffing shortages, and other issues.

Here is the link.
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 2:39 am
How does teacher salary vary by state?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 17, 2018 at 1:08 pm
The short answer is that it varies with the cost of living. School districts pay what the market demands to hire college-educated employees. More in lesson 3.1
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 2:38 am
What has more impact on student performance, socio economics or teacher performamce?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 17, 2018 at 1:46 pm
Lesson 2.2 explores the profound impact of poverty on student outcomes. There have been extraordinary examples of students overcoming the obstacles of poverty with the support of extraordinary teachers, but poverty is a corrosive to student learning AND to teachers' capacity to help students. It's not an accident that free lunch was one of the very first programs created to support schools. School work is hard, and requires concentration. Hunger, exhaustion and insecurity undermine concentration. The hazards of poverty extend to teachers, too -- for example, housing insecurity is a real issue for many teachers in California..
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 10:40 am
One more bit of research on teacher pay. This time from the Economic Policy Institute. This one breaks down the gap by state. In no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates.
Check out their graphic
user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 19, 2017 at 11:22 am
How do teacher salaries compare to others with the same level of education? Not well. The 2017 Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators finds that "Teachers earn less than 60% of the salaries of similarly educated workers." Here is the summary of findings:
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 16, 2017 at 5:08 pm
Should California exempt teachers from state taxes? Versions of this proposal have come up a few times, including SB807 in 2017. It would cost about $600 million annually. Via Cabinet Report
user avatar
Jeff Camp November 18, 2016 at 3:42 pm
The pay gap for teachers continues to widen, according to Sylvia Allegretto of the Economic Policy Institute:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 28, 2016 at 12:33 pm
A Quick Look at the Teacher Shortage
Check out our blog that discusses the widening teacher pay gap.
user avatar
Jeff Camp September 20, 2016 at 9:16 am
Housing is a growing problem for teachers as housing prices have risen much faster than teacher salaries. According to an analysis by Redfin, a national real estate brokerage, a rapidly-shrinking percentage of listings are priced within reach of a teacher salary. In several California counties there are literally zero properties that a teacher could afford to buy. The report includes links to images of example properties that teachers could afford in each county.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar - Ed100 December 4, 2014 at 10:57 am
A new report "SMART MONEY: What teachers make, how long it takes and what it buys them" from the National Council on Teacher Quality takes a look at teacher salaries across the country. One finding:
"Generally speaking, the salary trajectory for teaching is characterized by relatively small, incremental raises doled out each year, serving in stark contrast to many jobs in the private sector, with its system of promotions, bonuses and relatively rapid raises."
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm
In late 2011 The Atlantic published a summary of four studies on the question "Are Teachers paid too much"
user avatar
Tamara Schiff March 31, 2011 at 3:35 pm
TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement is a comprehensive school reform that is reaching nearly 20,000 teachers and 200,000 students across the country. TAP is comprised of four essential elements that are Aligned by Design--one of which is a performance pay component. Along with career opportunities for advancement, a fair and transparent evaluation system and job-embedded professional development, teachers are able to earn more for their demonstrated performance. Teachers who take on additional roles and responsibilities are compensated accordingly, while all teachers in TAP schools are eligible for annual bonuses based on multiple performance measures including classroom observation scores, individual and school wide student achievement growth. As noted in your other sections, TAP also recognizes that we need to attract, retain, develop and motivate the most talented individuals for the teaching profession. Data show that TAP addresses the intrinsic motivation of teachers to strive for excellence and effectiveness, and results in a high degree of faculty collegiality, thus proving that pay for performance is compatible with these values when it is an integral part of a well-designed support system. The comprehensive implementation of TAP has proven to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement. The paper linked above, as well as additional research outcomes can be found at

The teaching profession needs to make dramatic changes in order to ensure that the most effective teachers are in our classrooms. TAP provides an opportunity to make the changes necessary to improve teacher quality and student learning for all children.
user avatar
Don Shalvey March 31, 2011 at 8:18 am
The profession of teaching is one of the most noble and dignifying callings anyone could consider. Compensation starts with the joy and satisfaction that comes from increasing the opportunities your students will have as they grow and is closely followed by the satisfation that comes from working with stunning colleagues. Does financial compensation matter? Absolutely. A teacher's ability to earn a family sustaining income, live a comfortable life and help support the futures of their own children is an aspiration every teacher should achieve.
If we consider the facts that some subject areas like math, sciences and special education have enormous teacher shortages and that there are schools where many students have been traditionally underserved then addressing these needs with additional compensation is both logical and appropriate. It is also appropriate to recognize the value that a teacher adds to his or her students in the areas of intellectual, personal and social development. Outcomes matter both in terms of value to the studenmts and value to one's colleagues and the positive culture and climate at the school.
The challenge is how to do it in a fair and consistent manner. It is a challenge worth accepting knowing that more often than not the concept of fairness emerges locally rather than nationally. We must find ways to honor and recognize highly effective teachers and find incentives to have them continue to bring their talents and inspiration to youth for many years. I believe those incentives are a combination of an increased base compensation, incentive compensation for preparation, assignment and performance with a stroing nod towards insuring that they interact always with stunning colleagues and an effective and inspiring principal.
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