Poll: Public Vastly Underestimates Average Public School Teacher Salary

Published October 2, 2017

Respondents to the 2017 EdNext Poll on School Reform estimated the 2015-16 national average salary of U.S. K-12 public school teachers to be $40,587, more than 30 percent below the real National Center for Education Statistics figure of $58,064. Even teachers underestimated the average teacher salary by about 20 percent.

“When asked whether teacher salaries should be raised, no fewer than 61 percent of Americans are in favor,” the authors report. “But when told what teachers currently earn, the level of support drops to 36 percent. Both those readings show a modest cooling of public enthusiasm for higher salaries since 2016—a drop of 4 percentage points for the uninformed and 5 percentage points for the informed.

“Democrats express strong support for increasing teacher salaries, at 70 percent among the uninformed and 45 percent among the informed, as compared to 50 percent and 27 percent, respectively, among Republicans,” the report states. “The drop in support among the uninformed is higher among Democrats than among Republicans—8 percentage points as compared to just 2.”

In the Unions’ Interests

Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, editor-in-chief of EdNext, and coauthor of the poll, says interest groups perpetrate the idea teachers aren’t paid much.

“We can’t know for sure [why the public is misinformed], but teachers unions obviously have an interest in portraying teachers as earning very little,” West said.

Jason Richwine, an independent public policy analyst in Washington, DC, says the education establishment has successfully pushed a false narrative, constantly claiming government schools are underfunded.

“The education establishment—teachers unions and the politicians they support—has been successful in perpetuating the narrative that schools are constantly on the brink of bankruptcy,” Richwine said. “It pushes endlessly for more public money, and no amount is ever enough.”

Don’t Forget the Benefits

Richwine says misconceptions about teacher pay result partly from people forgetting about benefits packages.

“Another reason [for the underestimating] is that fringe benefits are a larger part of the compensation package for [government school] teachers compared to private-sector workers,” Richwine said. “So people tend to compare the salaries but forget that teachers are receiving much more generous health and retirement benefits than the typical private [sector] worker.”

Rewarding Successful Teachers

West says he favors switching to a merit-based system of teacher compensation, where standout educators receive raises in accordance with their performance.

“The key is to use the resources we invest in teacher compensation to make the profession as attractive as possible to those who are effective in the classroom,” West said. “Especially given how hard it is to predict who will be effective at the time they are hired, this requires that we find ways to reward those who demonstrate success.”

Harry Painter ([email protected]writes from Brooklyn, New York.


Kaitlin Mulhere, “People Think Teachers Are Underpaid—Until You Tell Them How Much Teachers Earn,” Time, August 15, 2017: http://time.com/money/4900091/teachers-average-salary-underpaid-poll/