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What Young Teachers Want

Districts can’t afford to lose young teachers. Can they change old ways to support new talent in the classroom and pay them what they deserve?

June 4, 2019

Leah Fabel

Teaching is incalculably rewarding. But expenses like student loan debt, childcare, down payments, and groceries carry price tags that are perfectly clear. And the paychecks of many teachers—especially those early in their careers working in cities with skyrocketing housing costs—come up short.

“We’ve continued to allow teaching to be paid as if it’s a family’s second income, and that’s not representative of teachers entering the workforce,” says Evan Stone (N.Y. ’07), co-founder of the teacher-led organizing group Educators for Excellence, or E4E.

In other words, millennial teachers need more money. They didn’t enter the profession to get rich, but neither did they enter it to live an hour’s commute outside the city and take weekend shifts at Applebee’s to pay down student debt. How can states and districts make it happen?

The Challenge

Since 1993, the “teacher wage penalty”—the gap between the average teacher salary and the average salary of other college-educated workers—has grown to a record high of 21.4%, up from about 5%, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. In real dollars, that translates to average teachers taking home about $20 less per week today (adjusted for inflation) than they would’ve in the 1990s, while their average non-teaching, college-educated friends are pocketing $300 more. (In four states—Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Colorado—the wage penalty topped 35%.)

About 18% of teachers work second jobs, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. More than half of them are outside of school, like tutoring, bartending, or hustling the ride-share apps after the last school bell rings.

Teachers of color are hit hardest by low salaries even as their leadership has proven critical to boosting student achievement. Upon leaving college, people who are Black have 86 percent more student debt than their white peers, according to a recent study published in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. But that’s not all: The authors found that it takes longer, on average, for people who are Black to pay down debt, in part because of racial inequities in the job market and lower rates of generational wealth to rely upon. By 15 years after college, student loan debt for Black people is 186% more than for white people.

Authors of a study released by the Center for American Progress found that 12 years after leaving college, Latinx people still owed about 83% of their original student loans, compared to 65% for white people. Authors suggested the problem could be significantly worse for people leaving college today, since rates of borrowing have ballooned.

Disproportionately weighed down by debt, the average teacher’s salary begins to feel not just difficult for many teachers of color, but irresponsible.

“We’ve continued to allow teaching to be paid as if it’s a family’s second income, and that’s not representative of teachers entering the workforce.”

Evan Stone

Are Raises Enough?

From California to Indiana to North Carolina, teachers have been rising up, employing walkouts, protests, and even strikes in a few places to bring attention to a multitude of issues—with a key focus on wages. In places like Denver, Arizona, and West Virginia, early-career teachers won significant pay hikes.

Still, the actions haven’t altered the dynamics holding salaries back.

Though it seems counterintuitive, total education-related spending has gone up significantly since the early 1990s. Even as teacher salaries have declined by an inflation-adjusted 2%, per-pupil spending has grown by 27%—the result of more non-classroom staff and steep increases to the cost of benefits and pensions. Between 2003 and 2014, for example, the national per-teacher cost of benefits grew from $14,000 to $21,000, according to the Center for Education Statistics.

Chad Aldeman is a partner at Bellwether Education and the founder of His calculations show that if West Virginia wasn’t saddled with $28 billion in unfunded pension liabilities (that is, retirement checks that have been promised but for which there are no savings in the bank), the state could put $11,000 back into each teacher’s paycheck tomorrow.

Until states solve the bigger financial problems holding salaries back, raises are only “a temporary salve,” Aldeman says.

Costly pension liabilities have equity implications, too. Because retirement benefits improve as pay and tenure increase, state dollars are “essentially subsidizing districts with higher salaries and lower teacher turnover,” Aldeman says. Oftentimes, those are wealthier, suburban districts, serving fewer students of color or from low-income communities.

Some states have taken steps to rein in their unfunded pension liabilities while still offering young teachers a path to retirement. In 2002, Florida began offering teachers a choice between a traditional pension plan and a 401(k), which lacks the lifelong security of a pension but is portable. Washington state began offering teachers more flexibility in retirement options beginning in 1995.

E4E recently completed a national survey of public school teachers, collecting their views on issues like salary, leadership, and retirement benefits. Those surveyed under the age of 30 are clamoring for comprehensive salary solutions beyond a one-time raise. Some 94% favor financial incentives tied to teaching in hard-to-staff schools, and 91% favor pay boosts for teachers who take on leadership positions.

They also want retirement options that don’t require them to stay put in one district to qualify. Among teachers under 30, 52% said they would prefer a 401(k) type of portable retirement plan, compared to 30% who would opt for a traditional pension.

Too often, Stone says, young teachers are handed a “one-size-fits-all contract based on antiquated ideas” about how mobile Americans are, or about how often modern-day teachers may go in and out of the profession. A traditional salary and pension package, based on the expectation of a long career in one place, “needs to continue to be an option for teachers who want it, and to whom it has been promised,” Stone says. “But we also know that about half of teachers are looking for greater earnings on the front end even if benefits over time are smaller.” 

Negotiating the Details

Katie Clymer (N.Y. ’04) is the director of talent acquisition for Denver Public Schools, a role that put her near the center of the district’s salary negotiations that culminated in a three-day strike in February—and ultimately, an 11.7% raise, on average, for teachers. The agreement bumped the district’s starting salary up 7% to $45,800, with the possibility of incentives for teaching in low-performing schools.

Clymer says the district put forward proposals that would’ve given younger teachers more money sooner in their careers, but those proposals were rejected by union leadership.

Sean Davis (N.Y. ’13) is a special education teacher at South High School in Denver and an elected member of the teacher union’s 22-person board. Unions need to balance the needs of all their members, he says, not just young teachers. “Every teacher got a 12 percent raise, and that’s a huge win. And I think the people who need it most are younger teachers.”

Davis also credits Denver’s teacher union with building young teachers’ confidence as activists. Compensation is a critical piece of recruiting and retention, but so is creating an environment where they want to work, he says. Through his work with the union, he was able to lobby successfully to include LGBTQ+ people in a bill requiring schools teach the history of marginalized communities.

In addition to a raise, Denver’s new contract did away with most aspects of a pay-for-performance structure that had been in place since 1999. Though the system had support at the outset, its results over the years came in mixed and teachers balked at its inconsistencies.

On E4E’s national survey, newer teachers were significantly more likely to favor nontraditional financial perks, including pay for strong performance—a trend Clymer says holds true in Denver. About 65% of E4E survey respondents under the age of 30 favored incentives tied to student growth on test scores, compared to 54% of teachers older than 50.

Clymer says that the district’s values play a key role in attracting young teachers, too. In 2017, she oversaw the recruitment of the most diverse new class of teachers in Denver’s recent history. About 30% of the district’s 250 new hires for fall 2018 were teachers of color. She attributes the success in part to the district’s decadelong effort to create a teaching force more representative of its students, 76% of whom are of color. (Even with the new hires, the district’s teaching force remains about 72% white.)

At a new-teacher panel in the spring, each of the five panelists said they chose Denver Public Schools in part because of the district’s work around diversity and inclusiveness, including big moves to ensure more equitable discipline policies and outcomes, Clymer says. “The teachers saw their values in our commitments.”

John Rubio (L.A. ’92) is the associate superintendent for human resources in East Side Union High School District in San Jose, California. Because of its location in the Bay Area, his teachers face some of the most expensive housing costs in the country. As a district leader, he has worked closely with union leadership to find cost savings in areas like health benefits in order to offer competitive salaries. In his previous role as superintendent of the small Emery Unified, located in Emeryville between Oakland and Berkeley, he made difficult budget cuts in part to bring salaries up to the highest rates in the region, and utilized a private partnership to offer $5,000 signing bonuses to math and science teachers.

Beyond salary, he sees young teachers looking for “a sense of connection, a strong support network.” But still, in the Bay Area especially, a high salary is a matter of survival. “Young teachers should care about the cost of pensions because as long as the states continue to not afford the rising costs, or continue to push more of those costs onto local districts, that means districts cannot be competitive with salaries.”

Clymer and Rubio offer the same advice to young teachers: Get involved. “Get as involved as you can in positions of union leadership and on negotiating teams,” Rubio says. “It’ll be hard, but try to find that opportunity.”

“Get as involved as you can in positions of union leadership and on negotiating teams. It’ll be hard, but try to find that opportunity.”

John Rubio

Other Compensations

Aaron Massey (S. Louisiana ’10) is the director of talent acquisition for the St. Louis Teacher Residency. Part of his work has been to recruit young Black teachers, in particular, to teach in St. Louis public schools. For many of them, he says, school culture plays an outsized role in their decisions. Most school cultures are not built “with Blackness in mind,” he says. As a result, many teachers go to school every day feeling like an outsider. “They want to belong to the school culture. They ask, ‘Can a Black person be Black at this organization?’”

At career fairs, Massey meets talented young people—about half of whom won’t consider teaching because of the low pay, he says. Those who are still interested want to know they’ll be supported as young teachers. “They don’t mind struggling, but they don’t want to feel alone,” Massey says. And they’re looking from the outset for opportunities to increase their pay, like leadership pathways and coaching opportunities.

Signing bonuses help sway potential teachers, too, Massey says, even if it’s a relatively small percentage of the salary, like $500. “Teachers see their environment differently when they’re being treated differently.”

Districts have actually done a better job of recruiting young teachers of color since the late 1980s, according to a 2019 report published in Education Policy Analysis Archives. Over two decades, the number of teachers of color nearly doubled, outpacing the growth of both students of color and white teachers. However, teachers of color left the profession at higher rates, too. The authors concluded that their high turnover rates were “strongly tied to poor working conditions in their schools.”

Massey himself never set out to leave the classroom. But as a new father, he’s concerned about long-term finances and stability. “If it was up to me,” he says, “I would’ve been paid more to be a math teacher.” Three things would get him back into a classroom: autonomy over his curriculum, the possibility of tenure, and a higher salary.

“The kids were never the challenge for me,” Massey says. “If a principal approached me right now and told me they’d pay me $65,000 to teach math in grades 6 to 10, and if those things were addressed, I would do it right now.”

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