America's teacher shortage, driven by low pay, is 'worse than we thought'

America’s teachers are paid poorly compared to other college graduates, a new study details — and that’s driving a “large and growing” teacher shortage that’s approaching a tipping point.

As a wave of disenchanted teachers take to the streets in protest around the country, a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) highlights a dearth of qualified educators in schools.

“When indicators of teacher quality (certification, relevant training, experience, etc.) are taken into account, the shortage is even more acute than currently estimated, with high-poverty schools suffering the most from the shortage of credentialed teachers,” the EPI wrote.

Detailing that “indicators that teacher pay is too low and declining,” the study issued a dire warning that “the teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.”


Compared to other workers of similar education levels, skills, and experience, teachers are consistently paid less. The average salary of a teacher is currently $60,000 — but the differences between states vary greatly.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teacher’s union, the average U.S. salary for a teacher just starting out is just under $40,000. Yet in Oklahoma, that figure drops substantially below that mark, to $32,000.

‘Crisis levels’

Teacher Bill Rhatican's class in his Advanced Placement US and Virginia government class at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo: Rich Lipski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Teacher Bill Rhatican's class in his Advanced Placement US and Virginia government class at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia. (Photo: Rich Lipski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

“As the President talks more and more about how ‘great’ the economy is, and how Wall Street has soared and we are smack dab in the middle of a Gilded Age, there’s more and more anger about the inequity,” Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told Yahoo Finance. The AFT is the second largest teacher’s union in the country.

The lack of pay is driving existing teachers out of the profession — while also failing to attract new educators.

“We have reached crisis levels,” Weingarten added. “There are over 300,000 teachers and other personnel who left — two-thirds of whom were before retirement.”

She added: “We are seeing teachers who aren’t credentialed in what they’re teaching and the plummeting of people who are going to teacher preparation schools.”

(Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
(Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Moonlighting gigs increase

According to the EPI’s study, roughly 60% of U.S. teachers took on additional work during the 2015-2016 school year (the latest for which data is available) to supplement poor compensation. That’s an increase from the 2011-2012 school year, when 55.6% of educators that moonlighted in other positions.

Emma Garcia, one of the EPI report’s authors, noted that the additional jobs taken by teachers is work that’s in addition to their full time teaching responsibilities during the school year.

“That’s a large number of teachers that are working other jobs on top of teaching,” Garcia told Yahoo Finance in an interview.

(Photo: EPI)
More than half of teachers forced to take on extra jobs because of low pay: report (Photo: EPI)

Some 44% of teachers found additional work within the school system, either as coaches, or teaching extra courses in the evening, EPI data shows.

Just under 20% found work outside of the school system, while another 6% had compensation attached to the performance of their students. But no matter how teachers made extra cash, it represents a fairly sizable portion portion of their pay — 7% of their total income.

Garcia described poor teacher pay as a “penalty” on educators.

“Teacher pay penalty is as high as 21%, and it has grown nonstop,” she said. “It’s an unfair penalty because it’s not explained by any of the typical determinants of earnings like education.”

Meanwhile, a 2018 Department of Education survey showed a whopping 94% of teachers pay for supplies out of their own pockets — something the AFT’s Weingarten didn’t find surprising.

“Teachers are exploited because of who they are,” she said. “Of course they’re going to dig into their own pockets to buy supplies, or food, or coats for their kids.”

Weingarten noted that on average, teachers will spend between $500 and $1,000 to purchase items for their students.

“I never tallied the amount of money I spent on my kids,” she added. “But when they didn’t have books or coats, of course I did. This is who teachers are.”

States have trouble attracting talent

The problem is more acute in high-poverty areas.

According to the study, those who worked in poorer districts received $5,600 less than their counterparts in wealthier ones. And they were shortchanged in their extra work as well, making roughly $300 less from side gigs.


And “fewer people are willing to make the choice to be in a profession that puts them at a financial disadvantage,” the report noted.

“It’s hard for states to attract new people into teaching, and it’s becoming harder to retain teachers,” Garcia said. “There was a 27% drop in people that completed teacher preparation programs from 2008 to 2016.”

There were even bigger drops for those seeking to train as teachers. Roughly 40% fewer people enrolled in teacher training classes in the same time period, pointing to a growing crisis.

“We have multiple crises in this [low pay] crisis,” Garcia explained. “We have a lack of interest in becoming a teacher. Lack of interest in staying a teacher. And you have an issue of inequity.”

Education Secretary takes heat

Around the country, teachers have been protesting low salaries among other grievances for years, but with varying degrees of success.

During this school year alone, there have been large teacher strikes in states like California, Oregon, North Carolina, and South Carolina, among others.

The protests, often conducted on a state-wide level, have disrupted the classes of millions of students.

And while school districts struggle with funding — the primary grievance for teachers along with low compensation — Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has offered little support to the protests.

"I think it's important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time, and that they not ultimately hurt kids in the process,” DeVos said recently. “I think too often they're doing so by walking out of classrooms and having arguments in the way that they are.”

Oakland Technical High School teacher Cris Bautista pickets in front of the school, Friday, March 1, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. Bautista teaches high school in Oakland, but to afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, he commutes an hour or more to an apartment he shares with another teacher and works weekends at a coffee shop. Bautista is among Oakland educators who are currently out on strike to push for a 12 percent pay raise, arguing their salaries are not nearly keeping up with the soaring cost of living in a region flush with technology industry money. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Oakland Technical High School teacher Cris Bautista pickets in front of the school, Friday, March 1, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Weingarten slammed DeVos’s comments as hypocritical, arguing that the Education Secretary had once again cut the federal budget — making it harder for teachers to do their jobs.

“She’s out there trying to undermine unions as much as she’s trying to undermine and defund public education,” Weingarten said. “She’s never been a friend of public education — she’s basically a foe.”

The union leader added that teachers “go on strike for their students — not on their students. And a strike is a last resort. And that’s why parents and communities support the strikes.”

Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

Read more:

Follow Yahoo Finance on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipboard, SmartNews, LinkedIn,YouTube, and reddit.