James V. Shuls

Today, I was greeted on Facebook with countless pictures of children smiling as they headed to their first day of the school year. My first thought was, “Uh-oh—my kids overslept!” Then I remembered they don’t start until tomorrow. As our kids head back to school, they will be welcomed by caring professionals who are dedicated to helping them grow—teachers.

Unfortunately, there is a terrible myth going around about teachers. This myth is pervasive and has been around for decades. It is the belief that teachers are badly underpaid.

Jay Greene, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, wrote about it in his influential 2005 book, “Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe about Our Schools and Why It Isn’t So.” Greene argued that when we compare a teacher’s hourly rate to those of other professionals, the pay is quite comparable. He also noted that we must consider other employment benefits, such as health care and retirement, which are typically more generous in education than the private sector.

Despite these arguments, the myth of grossly underpaid teachers has persisted. Recently, an Education Next poll asked respondents if they thought teacher pay should increase, decrease, or stay the same. Overwhelmingly, respondents said we should “increase” (47%) or “greatly increase” (14%) teacher pay. That in and of itself isn’t telling; if it were feasible, most of us would happily pay teachers more. The telling part is what happens when survey participants are given actual teacher salaries. When people are told how much teachers are paid, support for pay raises drops.

Results from 2017 Education Next Program on Education Policy and Governance Survey
 Without Information about Actual SalariesWith Information about Actual Salaries
Greatly increase14%6%
Stay about the same34%56%
Greatly decrease1%1%

Most people greatly underestimate how much teaches actually paid. In the survey, the average guess for the national average teacher salary was $40,587. That is $17,672 less than the actual average of $58,258. It is also less than the average here in Missouri, where the average total teacher salary in 2016 was $49,060. In Saint Louis City and County, the average climbs to $58,701 (author calculations).

 About two years ago I had to battle this teacher pay myth in my own home. My son came home from school saying teachers didn’t make very much money, at least that’s what his teacher said. I said, “I bet she makes more than me.” So, we looked it up (both of our salaries are public information). As it turns out, his teacher made several thousand more than I do.

The problem with the teacher pay myth is that it undermines a very noble and valuable profession. As Harvard education professor, Marty West suggests, “To the extent that the public has a falsely low impression of [how] much teachers earn, that only makes it harder for us to attract talented individuals into the teaching profession.”

 If we keep perpetuating the notion that teaching is a thankless job and teachers are underpaid, we shouldn’t be surprised when we have teacher shortages. Instead, let’s be honest—teaching is a great profession and the pay isn’t bad!

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.