Rural school districts have long struggled to attract talented teachers. But in recent years, the shortage has become so severe that districts across states like Missouri and Colorado are trying a radical recruitment strategy: permanent three-day weekends.

Between 2018 and 2022, the number of school districts in Missouri with four-day school weeks exploded from 33 to 150, according to an Oregon University study. In Colorado, 60% of the state’s school districts participate in the trend.  

The writing on the wall is grim – fewer people want to teach, and fewer teachers are earning wages that make the professional leap worthwhile. 77% of U.S. school districts still pay a starting salary below $50,000, according to the National Education Association.

Inflation has made the long-simmering problem of teacher pay into an urgent crisis. The gap between the weekly wages of teachers and those of other working college graduates – also referred to as the teacher pay penalty – saw a historic widening through 2022, largely due to record-high inflation. Students choosing the teaching profession now are reckoning with the fact that they will make a fraction of what their peers with similar levels of education earn in other fields. 

The Teacher Pay Penalty

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Esveidy Herrera-Rodriguez, 25, began teaching first grade in Durham, North Carolina after earning her graduate degree in 2020. She built up her savings from years of part-time jobs and living with her family during her first year as a teacher. Now she is balancing rent, car payments and other expenses on a $3,500 monthly pre-tax salary.

“I don’t even think I’m really saving, like truly my check disappears with my bills.” Herrera-Rodriguez said. “And I think what’s keeping me afloat is that backup money that I saved up.”

The first year of teaching is particularly stressful, she said. Several of her fellow 2020 graduates left teaching after their first year. 

The pandemic wreaked havoc on schools, with widespread reports of teacher burnout, quits and shortages. Even as the virus ebbed, high inflation and poor wages made the job a harder sell. Christina Simmons, director of teacher education at Messiah University, was teaching high school when the pandemic began, and saw her colleagues driven away from the job.

“Overall, it was a real hard hit,” Simmons said. “I think not only that, but also just the experience of morale for teachers went really down, and so people started leaving the profession.”

But the declining desirability of teaching as a viable profession began long before COVID-19 shut down schools. According to Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist who has been leading the charge on studying the teacher pay penalty since 2004, teacher pay has just barely kept up with inflation for decades.

The years that Allegretto has actively tracked the teacher pay penalty were years when inflation was low, or moderate at worst. That story changed amid the red-hot economy of 2021. Even before adjusting for inflation, teaching pay declined.

Between 2021 and 2022, according to the study, U.S. teacher’s literal salaries dropped by about 1%, and their purchasing power decreased by an additional 8% due to inflation. Allegretto anticipates that this pay hit will carry into the future of the profession.

“When are we ever going to see that the teachers are going to make up a 9% loss? We’ve never seen that in the history of teaching,” Allegretto said. 

Allegretto has two siblings that teach in Pennsylvania. Nowadays, she is not sure what incentive current college students have to choose the profession, given the data.

“We already have teacher shortages and students that are in classrooms that are not choosing teaching because they know this graph exists,” Allegretto said. “It’s going to become less and less – maybe very quickly.”

The reasons for the poor progress on pay vary across states. Colorado, with the highest pay penalty of 37%, has experienced rapid economic growth, but austerity measures by the state keep public sector investment stagnant. In Arizona, teacher pay remains some of the lowest in the country. More than a quarter of teacher vacancies last year went unfilled, according to the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.

Nathaniel Easley, 59, recalls a college advisor telling him in the 80s, “You’re way too smart for that, you’re going to do something that’s going to make you more money.”

Easley went on to become an education consultant in Colorado, and previously served as president of the Denver Public Schools Board of Education. He saw Denver’s economy rise alongside the cost of living there – a luxury that less and less Denver-based teachers can afford. Easley, like a majority of adults, thinks that teachers deserve more compensation.

“The district should really make it difficult for you to leave financially,” Easley said. “They should put golden handcuffs on you.” 

While there is no one story that encompasses the widening of the teacher pay penalty – there’s huge variations across states in areas like union power, growth, the earning potential of graduates and enrollment – it is clear that the profession is at a critical juncture. 

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs – an indicator of the profession’s future labor supply and overall desirability – has been on the decline for decades, according to the Penn State Center for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Between the academic years of 2010-11 and 2020-21, enrollment declined by 30%, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Districts across the country are making efforts to remedy the situation. States including Alabama and Mississippi have approved historic teacher salary boosts in recent years. 

Other states offer student loan forgiveness, teacher apprenticeship programs or reduced requirements for licensure. According to Simmons, the state of Pennsylvania gave out an unprecedented number of emergency certifications since the pandemic, putting it in company with Alabama and Massachusetts.  

But those are stopgap measures that don’t address the underlying problem.

“You can’t fix this problem with a kind of one off,” Allegretto said. “It has to be investments that are increasing over time to attract the best and the brightest into this profession.”

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