In Education, as in Shopping for Clothing, You Get What You Pay For

Inequity between teacher salaries – when looked at by state and district – is marked in this country, and this inequity has a huge impact on schools.

Last year  in Massachusetts teachers earned an average of $73,000 while their peers in Maine earned an average of $48,000. That is a difference of $25,000 per year. One can argue that the standard of living is different between Maine and Massachusetts – and it is. But $25,000 a year different? I don’t think so. The impact of this huge range in salaries paid teachers is not inconsequential. Massachusetts students topped the nation last year academically.

In education, as in shopping for clothing, you get what you pay for. Young, ambitious, well-trained, confident teachers with strong academic backgrounds don’t generally head for the schools that pay the lowest salaries. They look for districts that offer a promising future. Particularly in these troubled times, when the bottom line seems to determine the outcome of many of the decisions we all make, potential salary looms large in a young person’s mind.

In a democracy, one would think all children would receive a comparable education, but they don’t in this country. Since the education a child receives relies on the quality of the teaching she has experienced, and since richer districts (as measured by property values) pay better, less advantaged children generally experience a lower level of education.

Of course exceptions to the rule that higher salaries attract the best teachers exist far and wide, with some wonderful teachers working in low-paid districts. However we should take very seriously the impact to schools of salaries. For example, in Camden, Maine last year the maximum salary for a teacher was $65,905 while a teacher in neighboring Rockland with the same level of experience made $59,875. One result of this salary difference is the difference in percentage of teachers in a district holding graduate degrees.   50% of teachers in Camden had a master’s degree in school year 2004 – 2005 while only 22% of teachers in the neighboring towns did.  

Is a teacher with a master’s degree necessarily better than a teacher without one? Absolutely not. The qualities are various that make a teacher better than  average. However having a master’s degree certainly doesn’t generally hurt teacher quality. For one thing, there is a great deal of new knowledge coming out every day about teaching and learning and brain function, and teachers are more likely to be up to date if they have studied in a graduate school.

School districts looking to improve the education available to their students should offer teachers competitive salaries. This is one sure way to make a difference in the education of children. The state should substantially aid districts unable to afford a competitive salary for their teachers. While a modest salary difference between states might be in order if prices are different, there is no excuse in a democracy for a $6,000 gulf between the wages offered teachers in neighboring towns. We say we want to offer all children an equal chance – let’s do it.



Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.