The gap between white students and others has been narrowing, but teacher pay makes it unsustainable

Over the last two decades, standardized test scores for American schoolchildren have been on the rise. Between 1996 and 2017, the results on the National Assessment of Education Progress - or NAEP - exams in both reading and math consistently trended up. Even better, during that same time sequence the gaps in performance on those exams between white students on the one hand, and Black and Hispanic students on the other, consistently narrowed.

A recent study by the Brookings Institute found that two main factors appear to have driven these positive outcomes.

First, there was a growing utilization of accountability metrics to encourage underperforming schools to revise instructional and support practices to mimic what has worked in higher performing schools.

Second, school funding increased in a meaningful way from the mid-1990s through the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, particularly for schools serving significant low-income populations. That influx of resources enabled these traditionally underfunded schools to invest in implementing educational practices that were shown to work in better funded schools.

Given that minority students are disproportionately represented in low-income schools, the combination of new resources invested in sound educational practices helps explain why the racial and ethnic achievement gaps were closing.

Unfortunately, the aforesaid continuous improvement in educational outcomes is not likely to be sustainable. The main reason is the national teacher shortage that's been caused in large part by inadequate pay.

How inadequate? A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that a teacher in America makes 19.2% less than individuals who need similar levels of educational attainment to work in other professions. That's up from 6% less in 1996.

For those concerned generous health care and pension benefits make up the pay difference, feel free to be concerned about something else. The national data show benefits constitute 29.3% of the total compensation paid to teachers, and 21.4% of total compensation for their professional peers. Even though benefits are slightly better for teachers, they don't come close to making up for the pay differential. As an aside, benefits can't be spent on buying groceries or gas, so the pay differential is really a big deal.

Because of historic sexism, underpaying teachers is nothing new in America. As noted by Harvard professor Susan Moore Johnson, for generations women had very few professional options other than teaching and nursing. So many of the best and brightest women became teachers. This in turn meant teacher salaries could be set artificially low without reducing the pipeline of qualified entrants. Times have changed.

Now that women have far more career options, the relatively low pay for teaching is dissuading many - women and men - from pursuing it. Consider the number of individuals enrolling in teacher-prep education programs declined from 719,081 in 2010, to just 441,439 in 2017, a drop of nearly 40%. Worse, the number of individuals who go on to complete their degree in teaching also declined, from 232,707 in 2010, to 159,598 in 2017, a drop of 31%.

That decline in the number of individuals completing teaching degrees is cause for significant concern, given the Bureau of Labor Statistics currently estimates over the coming decade the nation will have to fill an average of 201,700 open teaching positions at the K-12 level every year - or 42,102 more positions than new entrants to the field.

It also explains why the long-term trend of improved student outcomes isn't sustainable.

• Ralph Martire,, is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a fiscal policy think tank, and the Arthur Rubloff Professor of Public Policy at Roosevelt University.

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