Why do teachers get paid so little in America?

Why do teachers get paid so little in America?


A frequent conversation among households has been the deteriorating condition of the public school system in America. There have been massive uprisings in demand for better pay, benefits, and funding for schools by educators. This has led to heated debates about the value and need of teachers. But what caused this issue to rise? In this article, I will tell you the truth about teacher pay in America and provide an answer for “Why do teachers get paid so little in America?” Keep scrolling to know more.

Throughout the country, there has been a massive cry for the future of public education in America. Teachers around the country have staged walkouts in demand of better pay, benefits, and funds. This has rightfully struck a chord with the public as teachers are struggling to make a living wage. Though, debates persist if these demands are outstretched or not and the reasons behind the low salaries remain indefinite and unclear. Some researchers claim that the majority of this problem can be traced back to the stagnation of teaching wage inconsistent with the cost of living, lack of public-school funding, the male-female wage gap, and underestimation of the profession.

Now let us dive into a deeper understanding of the same.

The Problem

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers and educators in America make 20% less than other professions with the same educational qualification, similar experiences, and merits. This wage gap is only on the rise with time. Teachers are finding it difficult to earn a living age due to the increasing cost of living but the little to no increments in wage. According to a report by CNBC, one-fifth of the teacher workforce has to take up second jobs to stay afloat. These problems have been persistent for decades now. Moreover, the Covid-19, the pandemic has only made things worse. The profession is in danger and the future of education in America is in danger. Teachers are the number one factor responsible for student performance and high-quality education. Yet, they are under-compensated for the work they do. 

Teachers are faced with safety training, constant evaluation, revision of the curriculum, standardized testing, technical and curriculum training, and responsibilities outside the classroom. The teachers believe that the current wages fail to match the expectations of the position.  It has been reported that teachers currently earn 15% less than they did in 1999. That is with ever-increasing inflation rates in the country. Even if their salaries were the same as in 1999, it would be difficult for them to earn enough wage while keeping up with the cost of living. 

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary is $60,000 in the US. Whereas, the starting salary is found to be $40,000 in over 60% of the country’s school districts. That is not a living wage in most parts of the country. To make matters worse, in some districts, a teacher’s starting salary is below $30,000. In these dire situations, teachers are forced to take second jobs to earn enough for themselves. Some teachers have to resort to quitting the profession altogether. This only leads to employee shortages and low retention rates in the profession making matters worse for education.

Teaching is also considered to be a female profession. 76% of the public-school teachers are female. That is more than three-quarters of the workforce. This results in lower pay. An ill-formed tone was laid down, many decades ago, that teaching is inherently a low-paying job. This standard has since then stuck. When compared with all the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), it was found that teachers in the US make nearly 60% less than similarly educated professionals. The US stands last in this list among all (38) OECD countries. 

But why are teachers paid so little?

Researchers claim that there is no one clear reason behind this problem. There can’t be found one national answer to this question. This is a systemic problem that has to be tackled differently in different states due to the difference in market structures. 

  1. Stagnant Wage Rate: Stagnant wages are the biggest reason behind low teacher salaries. As mentioned before, teacher wage has remained the same from 1990 to 2010. This wage rate has only dropped further in 2015. This is not enough to live with the increasing inflation rates.

  2. The Argument on Benefits: Some critics claim that teachers earn substantially more benefits than an average private-sector worker, adding to that smaller work hours and summer break. This argument is made by those who believe teachers are not underpaid. However, it fails to hold true. Teachers have explained how these benefits do not seem to matter much on closer inspection. It is not possible to pay for utilities with benefits, hence, daily wage matters the most. Moreover, studies show that teachers are only qualified for pension after 25 years of teaching or more. Thus, teachers who do not make it to this mandated age in their careers receive no benefits. It has been found that only one-quarter of the teachers are able to reach this point.

    This means that though teacher’s retirement salaries put a big dent in the state budget, more than half of the teachers are unable to reap these benefits. These funds could instead be redirected to teacher’s salaries. Secondly, teachers can only earn their benefits if they stay in the same state. All these factors lead to a lack of assurance in the hope of getting benefits in the distant future when the current wage is low to keep up with the cost of living. Coming to the argument of smaller work hours, teachers have been found to work overtime regularly. Due to extracurricular activities, lesson plans, curriculum training, meetings and special duties like chaperoning, organizing school functions etc. teachers usually work after school hours. 

  3. Expenditure on Supplies by Teachers: Furthermore, it has been found that teachers spend a good sum of money from their own pocket for school supplies. About 94% of teachers spend their own money on school supplies for their students and classrooms. This can be credited to the lack of funds in public schools. When teachers are themselves earning so low, they are forced to spend money from their own pocket for the utilities that should be provided by the school in the first place.

  4. An Undervalued Profession: Another great factor behind low teacher salaries is the ill-formed belief that “teaching is easy.” This has led to the misconception that it is not as “difficult” as any other job with the same educational qualifications. Teachers are undervalued and their role in education has been disregarded. This belief couldn’t be far from true as teachers have to take up several roles as a part of their profession, right from being an advisor/counselor to their students to administration and organization of the school events. Their job is also subjected to constant evaluation and training. They have to keep up with a frequently revised curriculum and are found to be under constant scrutiny. 

  5. Lack of Public Funds to Accustomed the Number of Teachers: The authorities have found that though public funds have been directed to education, it has barely benefited teacher’s pay. This is because teacher’s salaries are so low to begin with that any immediate addition would seem like an under-compensation. Secondly, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics, there are approximately 3.5 million teachers in the US. Thus, this problem is difficult to tackle at once and immediately. 

  6. Female-Dominated Profession: Some experts say that as teaching is a female-dominated profession, the causes of the low pay lie in sexism and the male-female wage gap as well. Initially, when women started to join the workforce, their options were limited and hence they had to resort to teaching. However, this reality has now changed. Women have a wide variety of options and thus it has become difficult to attract new crowds into this profession.

  7. The Difference in Salary Levels: This problem also varies from state to state due to the difference in market structure. For example, the average salary for a teacher in Oklahoma is less than $40,000. This is the lowest paying state in the country. In comparison, the median salary for teachers in Massachusetts is approximately over $80,000. This means that the reason behind these salaries differs from state to state.

The Outcome

All these factors have led to dissatisfaction among teachers regarding their jobs. Teachers have voiced their resentment and expressed how they believe that the responsibilities, expectations, and demands from teachers have been on the rise with no salary increases to compensate for it. This leads to the gradual neglect of their job which only affects the quality of education. Those who can, quit and opt for different career options. Those unable to do that have to endure the low conditions and sacrifices that come with this profession. Teaching is a job where the best come from experience and commitment to their work. Thus, it is important to make this a sustainable profession for individuals to stay in.

As a result of the discontent, teachers have staged strikes in demand of better wages and better working conditions. They have also asked for better public funding for schools. This began in West Virginia, where around 20,000 teachers refused to step into classrooms until their demands for an increase in salaries and insured benefits were met. This uprising gained a lot of public support. Thus, after nine days of protests, a 5% wage increase was sanctioned. This agitation was followed by Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, and several other parts of the country and gained similar support from the public. 


One would be in denial to claim that at least one of their teachers hasn’t influenced their lives in a major way. We all remember that one teacher who made us a better person and guided us to our path in life. Thus, teachers are the number one factor for improving the quality of education in the country. Their jobs are highly undervalued and they are clearly underpaid for the expectations that they are held to. A revamp of the public education system in America might be needed to solve this crisis. I am no expert but I understand that the teacher’s demands are not out of bounds. Let’s hope that the lawmakers understand the same soon enough and make some substantial changes. One can only hope that it doesn’t get too late. 

Why do teachers get paid so little in America?

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