Setting teacher salaries straight

When the media report on teacher pay, the data cited can often be misleading. A state’s average teacher salary seems like a sound number, but pay varies between districts, and different states have different rules about minimum salaries. A recent policy brief by the National Council on Teacher Quality’s Kency Nittler and Nicole Gerber examines salary data in a way that goes beyond averages for ten states that make teacher salary information for all districts available: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia.

Seven of the ten sampled states set minimum salary schedules, which increase pay at specified intervals as teachers gain experience and graduate degrees: Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Two, Illinois and Missouri, only set a minimum salary for all teachers, regardless of experience. And one, California, defers its teacher pay decisions to individual districts. Based on these three categories alone, average salary means something different in each. But there’s more.

Districts must of course meet salary minimums, but they need not stop there. And many don’t—which compounds intrastate variance. Nittler and Gerber found, for example, that starting salaries between districts in sample states vary by an average of $16,116, after adjusting for cost of living. Using Kentucky as an example of a state that is in the middle in terms of salary variation among districts (the state is one that sets an overall minimum salary), the authors point out that the highest starting salary is in suburban Jefferson County at $42,701, whereas the lowest starting salary is Kentucky’s rural Bell County at $32,429. Indeed, the brief found that most districts in the seven states with pay schedules generally provide teachers additional pay on top of the state minimums—though, again, it varies in magnitude by district and state.

The brief’s findings are limited by its small sample, but not without good reason, as the authors were not able to include many states that did not provide data on salary minimums and schedules for all of their districts. Its findings are nevertheless enough to demonstrate that average salary, though useful in some contexts, obscures important aspects of teacher pay disparities when it’s used exclusively. Policymakers, reformers, and particularly the media should therefore seek out and use more nuanced data when considering these issues.

SOURCE: Kency Nittler and Nicole Gerber, “States, strikes, and teacher salaries,” National Council on Teacher Quality (May 2018).