Teacher Salaries, Working Conditions, and Job Satisfaction

The challenge of staffing the nation's schools with highly qualified teachers has turned policymaker and researcher attention to the issues of hiring and retention. Reports of difficulty in hiring teachers in elementary and secondary schools began to emerge in the early 1990s and have continued in recent years (Arnold and Choy 1993; BHEF 2007; Broughman and Rollefson 2000; Carroll, Reichardt, and Guarino 2000; Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006; Murphy, DeArmond, and Guin 2003; NCTAF 1996, 2003). Although there have been various explanations for this situation,[26] current research suggests that in recent years hiring difficulty was primarily caused by large numbers of teachers leaving the profession before regular retirement age (Cochran-Smith 2004; Ingersoll 2001, 2004, 2006; Merrow 1999; Wayne 2000) (see sidebar "Attrition From Teaching"). Filling vacancies, seeking qualified candidates, and introducing and mentoring new teachers all involve financial costs (Brenner 2000). The consequences could be even worse if unqualified or partially qualified individuals have to be hired to replace those who leave (NCTAF 2003).

Why do teachers leave their jobs before retirement? What makes them want to stay in the profession? Researchers have addressed these important questions (Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006). Although many factors can influence teachers' decisions about leaving or staying in their jobs, results from past research consistently indicate that teacher working conditions and salary levels are critical in such decisions (Boyd et al. 2005; Dolton and Wilbert 1999; Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004; Ingersoll 2006; Loeb, Darling-Hammond, and Luczak 2005; Perie and Baker 1997). The research evidence suggests that adequate compensation and safe and supportive school environments serve to attract and retain teachers, whereas low pay and poor working conditions undermine teachers' long-term commitment to their jobs.

This section examines several indicators related to teacher working conditions, including their salaries, perceptions of their work environments, overall job satisfaction, and willingness to continue to teach. To provide a context for such a discussion, the section begins by examining whether there has been an insufficient number of teachers in mathematics and science in recent years. It concludes by looking at how various aspects of teacher work environments are linked to their long-term commitment to teaching as a career and profession.

Teaching Vacancies in Mathematics and Science

Researchers have used various methods to determine the extent of any possible teacher shortage,[27] including counting the number of teachers holding alternative or emergency licenses; estimating the net effects of student enrollment, teacher retirement, and teacher attrition; and assessing teaching vacancy rates (Arnold and Choy 1993; Broughman and Rollefson 2000; Carroll, Reichardt, and Guarino 2000; Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006; Henke et al. 1997; Murphy, DeArmond, and Guin 2003). Although none of these methods has proven perfect, researchers found some consistent patterns: teacher shortages existed in specific subject fields, in geographic locations, and in some individual schools. For example, teacher shortages occurred more frequently in certain states where the population grew fast because of immigration and high rates of childbirth (e.g., California, Texas, and Florida); in specific subjects such as mathematics, science, special education, and bilingual education; and in schools located in high-poverty areas (Boe et al. 1998; Howard 2003; Wayne 2000). The following analysis uses school reports of teaching vacancies to evaluate whether there were insufficient numbers of mathematics and science teachers in public secondary schools.

Administrators of schools that participated in SASS were asked whether, in the current school year, their schools had vacancies in various fields (i.e., teaching positions needing to be filled) and how difficult it was to fill these vacant positions. The majority of public secondary schools experienced teaching vacancies in one or more fields (figure 1-16figure.). The vacancy rate decreased somewhat during recent years; still, 80% of public secondary schools reported teaching vacancies in 2003. In both 1999 and 2003, mathematics was one of the fields that had a relatively high vacancy rate. In 2003, for example, 74% of public secondary schools with any teaching vacancy reported at least one vacant position in mathematics. Vacancy rates for biology/life and physical sciences were also high, with 52%–56% reporting at least one vacant position in these fields.

The data in figure 1-16figure. further reveal that mathematics and physical sciences were among the most difficult fields in which to find teachers in both 1999 and 2003.[28] Although this situation has improved during recent years, close to one-third of public secondary schools with teacher vacancies in mathematics and physical sciences in 2003 either found them very difficult to fill or were unable to do so. Although secondary schools had a high teacher vacancy rate in biology/life sciences, teachers in these fields were relatively easier to find than they were in mathematics or physical sciences.

Teacher Salaries

Teachers (particularly mathematics and science teachers) who leave the profession or move to other schools often cite low pay as a main reason for doing so (Bobbitt et al. 1994; Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006; Ingersoll 2006; Leukens, Lyter, and Fox 2004; NSB 2006). Indeed, among professions requiring a minimum of a bachelor's degree, teaching is a relatively low-paying profession. In 2003, the annual median salaries for full-time high school mathematics and science teachers and all full-time elementary school teachers were $43,000 and $41,000, respectively, far below those of professions requiring comparable educational backgrounds (e.g., computer systems analysts, engineers, accountants or financial specialists, and protective service workers) (table 1-12table.). Moreover, the salary increases for teachers lagged behind those who worked in other professions. Between 1993 and 2003, full-time high school mathematics and science teachers had a real salary gain of 8%, compared with increases of 21%–29% for computer systems analysts, accountants or financial specialists, and engineers. Similar results have been reported elsewhere (AFT 2005; Allegretto, Corcoran, and Mishel 2004). Although the difference in the number of weeks worked between teachers and those in other professions may explain some of the salary gaps, it cannot explain why these gaps grew over the years. If teaching salaries are not competitive with those offered in other professions requiring comparable education and skills, it may be difficult to retain teachers (especially those in mathematics and science) who may find more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

When asked to rate their satisfaction with their salaries, more than one-half of public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers expressed dissatisfaction (figure 1-17figure.). Those in high-poverty schools were more likely than their colleagues in low-poverty schools to be unhappy with their salaries.

Teacher Perceptions of Working Conditions

Like salaries, working conditions also play a critical role in determining the supply of qualified teachers and in influencing their decisions about remaining in the profession. Research shows that safe environments, strong administrative leadership, collegial cooperation, high parental involvement, and sufficient learning resources can improve teacher effectiveness, enhance their commitment to school, and promote their job satisfaction (Darling-Hammond 2003; Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006; McGrath and Princiotta 2005). Characteristics of a school's student body are also important in increasing teacher satisfaction and keeping them in the profession. Students who go to school ready to learn, obey school rules, show respect for their teachers, and exhibit good learning behaviors not only can contribute to a positive school climate, but also can increase teacher enthusiasm, effectiveness, and commitment (Hanushek, Kain, and Rivkin 2004; Kelly 2004; Stockard and Lehman 2004).

SASS asked teachers whether they agreed with a number of statements about their school environments and working conditions. A majority of public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers expressed positive views of their school administrators' leadership and support, cooperation among colleagues, and availability of instructional resources (figure 1-20figure.). Although teachers overall held generally positive perceptions of their school environments, these perceptions tended to be less prevalent in schools with more minority and poor students than in schools with fewer such students. This was particularly the case for teacher perceptions of parental support: 42%–44% of mathematics and science teachers in high-minority and high-poverty schools said that they had received a great deal of support from parents, compared with 67%–71% of their counterparts in low-minority and low-poverty schools.

In addition to school environments, teachers were asked to indicate whether particular student attitudes and behaviors were serious problems in their schools. The problem that public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers most often reported as serious concerned students coming to school unprepared to learn: 37% of the teachers viewed this issue as a serious problem in their schools (figure 1-21figure.). They also frequently cited student apathy, student absenteeism, and student tardiness as serious problems. Teachers who taught in schools with high concentrations of minority and low-income students cited various student problems (especially that students came unprepared to learn) as serious more frequently than did those who taught in schools with low concentrations of such students.

Job Satisfaction and Commitment to Teaching

Although teachers are paid less than those in many comparable professions and sometimes have to work in environments that are less than ideal, the large majority of them are happy about being teachers. When asked whether they were satisfied with being a teacher at their school, 90% of public middle and high school teachers gave a positive answer (table 1-13table.). Responses from mathematics and science teachers were similar.

When asked how long they planned to remain in teaching, many teachers responded that they planned to remain as long as they were able (42%) or until they were eligible for retirement (34%). Just 3% had definite plans to leave teaching as soon as possible. When asked whether they would become teachers again if they could start over, 66% indicated that they certainly or probably would, and only 5% responded they certainly would not. Responses from mathematics and science teachers to these questions resembled the overall patterns, although less science teachers (32%) than mathematics and other teachers (42% and 40%, respectively) said they would certainly go into teaching again.

Working conditions were strongly associated with teacher commitment to teaching. Regardless of what they taught, teachers who worked in a positive school environment tended to be more likely to consider teaching as a long-term career and to believe they would choose the profession again (appendix table 1-21Excel.). For example, among public middle and high school mathematics teachers who thought that their school administrators were supportive and encouraging, 48% said that they planned to continue teaching as long as they could, and 49% said that they would certainly become a teacher again if they could start over, compared with 22% and 20%, respectively, of those who did not share this perception about their school administrators.


College graduates who entered teaching were more likely to stay in that occupation than graduates who entered most other professions requiring comparable education, including legal professionals and legal support personnel, engineers, scientists, laboratory and research assistants, and computer and technical workers. Between academic years 2003 and 2004, about 6%–7% of mathematics and science teachers in public schools left teaching, compared with 8% of all teachers. Regardless, public secondary schools continued to experience various degrees of difficulty in hiring mathematics and science teachers in recent years.

Teacher salaries lagged behind those of many comparable professionals. These gaps have widened substantially in recent years, and about half of public middle and high school mathematics and science teachers were not satisfied with their pay. Although public school teachers generally had favorable perceptions of their working conditions, those in schools with high concentrations of minority or poor students viewed their work environments as less satisfactory. The findings that working conditions and pay were associated with teacher long-term commitment to teaching signify that high-minority and high-poverty schools may face greater challenges than others in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.


[26] For example, these explanations include the retirement of an aging teaching force, increased student enrollments, reforms such as the reduction of class sizes, high rates of attrition, and lack of qualified candidates willing to enter the profession (Broughman and Rollefson 2000; Howard 2003; Hussar 1999).

[27] Teacher shortages occur in a labor market when demand is greater than supply. This can be the result of either increases in demand or decreases in supply or of both simultaneously (Guarino, Santibanez, and Daley 2006).

[28] Teaching vacancies in foreign languages, English as a second language, and special education were also difficult to fill in secondary schools, according to SASS data.

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