Schooled

The Worst-Paid Teachers in America Are Actually Getting a Raise

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This woman needs a raise. But will even more money be enough to keep her in the classroom in South Dakota?

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Teachers in South Dakota are, on average, the worst paid educators in America, earning about $40,000 a year. But thanks to three historic bills signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Friday, that’s about to change. A raise in the state’s sales tax, the first in decades, is set to inject nearly $70 million into the state’s education budget, with the aim of bringing the teacher pay average up to $48,500 a year. This is, on the state’s part, a much-needed move: South Dakota has a severe teacher shortage, one that is chronic in some parts of the largely rural state.

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“Watching the governor sign the bills was pretty amazing,” says Mary McCorkle, the president of the South Dakota branch of the National Education Association. She believes higher pay will help stem the exodus of local teachers to neighboring states for jobs. “We’ve had teachers going to Wyoming, Minnesota, and North Dakota and making $10,000 more.” Rates of pay for teachers vary widely from state to state. In D.C. the average pay is about $75,000 a year. New York state offers an average of approximately $77,000 while Mississippi’s teacher pay average is about $42,000. 

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But more money isn’t likely to be a magic bullet. Teacher shortages and the challenges of teacher recruitment and retention are complicated issues with no single cause—and certainly no single solution.

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What teacher shortages certainly are, however, is a national problem, particularly when it comes to teachers who work in special education or STEM. California’s teacher supply is said to be at a 12-year-low while demand there is on the rise: A recent report recommended the state start teacher recruitment as early as high school. Some districts, like ones in rural parts of Mississippi and Montana, often offer “emergency teaching licenses” in order to fill teaching spots. In Nevada the Clark County School District is desperate enough to try to recruit teachers with free superhero capes (part of a “Calling All Heroes” marketing campaign). Its effort attracted more than 1,700 teachers—but the district was still short by 800 teachers at the start of the school year. In South Dakota the current incoming pipeline of teachers is not expected to meet demand over the next five years.

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There’s no doubt South Dakota’s teachers will welcome a raise—but pay isn’t the only thing that attracts people to teaching, nor is it what keeps them there. Working conditions play a huge role. Teaching isn’t typically a high-paying job to begin with, so when educators look at jobs they also weigh things like how challenging a classroom will be, the degree of professional development offered, and the availability of resources like textbooks and technology. 

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Richard Ingersoll, a prominent education researcher, spoke to the South Dakota teacher pay task force last year. He says that 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years and salary is seldom the only reason why. A mentorship program can be highly effective—but only if it’s done well. “If it’s thought through carefully and more comprehensive it has better outcomes,” he says.

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Along with its pay rises, South Dakota does plan to put money aside for other things, including mentorship, to which the new legislation directs $1 million every year. But what constitutes mentorship can vary; it can mean anything from catching up for coffee at the start of semester to a veteran teacher sitting in on class. And as of now, the governor’s office hasn’t released details on how its mentorship program will work.

As for salaries, some South Dakota teachers have expressed concern that the money won’t trickle down to their paychecks. Good news: If school districts don’t put at least 85 percent of the new money toward salaries, they’ll lose state aid.

But should that money be focused on attracting new teachers or keeping existing ones around? Dara Zeehandelaar, the national director of research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, says these pay rises will only have a impact on the teacher shortage if they’re distributed strategically. “If [districts] have a shortage they need raise the base pay to attract [new teachers],” she says. “If they find they have no trouble attracting new teachers, they need to incentivize early-career teachers to stay in the profession.”

Correction, March 14: The article originally said that Nevada’s Clark County School District could not afford to give teachers raises. In fact, it approved a pay hike for teachers earlier this year.

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