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Reporter Jennifer Guerra takes a deep dive look at how we go about paying teachers in Michigan and what it means for teacher retention and teacher performance in the state.Scroll below to see all four reports.

Here's how teacher pay stacks up to other comparable jobs

Photo courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute

Our first post in this series looked at the state's "average salary" for teachers and how that number can be misleading since it doesn't account for years of experience.

Joshua Cowen is an education policy professor at Michigan State University and he says "you always need a relative comparison" when talking about salaries. "If it's not weighted by experience, it doesn't tell us a whole lot."

Cowen instead recommends doing a comparative analysis to see how the average teacher salary at 10 years stacks up against a comparable profession.

Lucky for us, Sylvia Allegretto and her colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) have already done something similar. For a decade now they've been comparing teachers' wages and benefits to those in other comparable professions, and their findings demonstrate what many teachers told us in our survey: the gap between teacher pay and other professional jobs is wide -- and it continues to grow.

"It sucks. Started at $34K. Taking 10 years to make what most of my friends make straight out of college." -- public school teacher, South Lyon

According to Allegretto's most recent teacher pay study, public school teachers’ weekly wages in 2015 were 17% lower than those of comparable workers—compared to just 1.8% lower in 1994. 

But teachers have great benefit packages, right? Surely that has to count for something.

It does, says Allegretto, but not as much as you may think. According to her research, teachers still lag behind other comparable workers by 11.1% even when you factor in benefits.

Other key findings include:

  • Teachers in unions make more money than those who aren't in a union: In 2015, teachers not represented by a union had a ?25.5 percent wage gap—and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers.
  • The wage penalty for male teachers is much larger: The male teacher wage gap was -22.1% in 1979 and improved to ?15.0% in the mid-1990s, but worsened in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. It stood at ?24.5% in 2015.
  • Teachers are paid less than other college graduates in every state: In the U.S. teachers earn on average 77% of what other college graduates make. Michigan's teacher pay ratio comparison is slightly better at 82.7%.

Credit Photo courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute
Photo courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute

Allegretto says these figures point to an increasing "opportunity cost" for going into the field of education.

"When the difference between teachers and other opportunities is growing so large" in terms of pay and total compensation, and student debt continues to skyrocket,  Allegretto says "it's reasonable to think that many students who would otherwise choose this profession may not be."

Several of the teachers who filled out our survey echoed that point, and the most recent federal data puts the issue in stark relief: enrollment in teacher prep programs in Michigan dropped 23% between 2012 and 2014

I would never recommend anyone go into teaching. You cannot survive on a current teacher salary. -- public school teacher, Grand Rapids

I am a math teacher, with masters in my subject area. I often think of leaving for private industry where I could make much more doing data analysis. -- public school teacher, Novi

The starting salaries are still very low and do not attract people to the profession. If you're willing to stick it out and make a lot of financial sacrifices the first 10 years you can eventually end up making a decent salary, but the cuts to pensions and health care are making the profession less and less attractive. -- public school teacher, Wayne-Westland

There's loads of evidence that shows student success is closely tied to teacher quality, so high-quality teachers are crucial in the classroom.

You want the best and brightest to teach the country's future scientists and engineers and nurses, but districts are trying to lure in the best talent with an average starting salary of $36,000. It makes you wonder how many potential teachers in Michigan are turning away from the field because the opportunity cost to go into the field is so great.

In our final post for this series, we'll look at the pros and cons of performance pay.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.