Teachers of Mathematics and Science

Students’ achievement in mathematics and science depends not only on the courses they take, but also, in large part, on their access to high-quality instruction. Many factors may affect teacher quality, including qualifications, subject-matter knowledge, years of experience, ongoing professional development, access to instructional coaches, instructional resources and leadership, and working conditions. Educators and policymakers continue to focus on attracting and retaining high-quality STEM teachers, as evidenced by the inclusion in ESSA of multiple provisions related to STEM teachers (see sidebar ESSA and STEM Teachers).

ESSA and STEM Teachers

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 (NSB 2016) provided in-depth analysis of STEM teachers using data from the NCES 2011–12 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS). New national data on STEM teachers have not become available since the publication of Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, so this section provides a brief review of those findings followed by new data that provide insight into how U.S. teachers’ salaries compare with those of their international counterparts.

As noted, the primary data source for STEM teacher information for Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 was the 2011–12 SASS, a national survey conducted biennially by NCES from 1987 to 2011. NCES has redesigned SASS and launched it as a new survey, the National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS). Data collection began during the 2015–16 school year, and data will be available for analysis by 2018. NTPS was designed to be more flexible, timely, and integrated with other Department of Education surveys. It covers the same core topics as SASS while also including newer topics, such as teachers’ use of information technology in the classroom. Core topics include teacher and principal preparation, school characteristics, demographics of the teacher and principal labor force, teacher professional development, and teacher compensation and retention.

Previous Findings

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 provided various indicators of public school mathematics and science teachers’ quality based on data collected during the 2011–12 school year, including educational attainment, professional certification, participation in student teaching, self-assessment of preparation, and years of experience. The section on mathematics and science teachers also examined school factors, such as salary and working conditions, that may affect teacher effectiveness. The section focused on middle and high school teachers because mathematics and science teachers are more common and more easily identified at these levels than at the elementary level.

In 2011, the vast majority of public middle and high school mathematics (91%) and science (92%) teachers were fully certified (i.e., held regular or advanced state certification). The percentage of mathematics and science teachers with full state certification increased by 6 percentage points and 9 percentage points, respectively, from 2003 to 2011. The increase in teachers with full certification was seen in many types of schools but was more apparent among science teachers in high-minority (from 79% in 2003 to 90% in 2011) and high-poverty schools (from 80% to 91%). Despite these increases, fully certified mathematics and science teachers were still less prevalent in high-minority and high-poverty schools when compared with low-minority and low-poverty schools. For example, 88% of mathematics teachers in high-poverty schools were fully certified, compared with 95% of those in low-poverty schools.

The prevalence of mathematics and science teachers with degrees in the subject they taught (i.e., in-field degrees) also varied by school poverty level. For example, 75% of middle school mathematics teachers in low-poverty schools had in-field degrees, compared with 63% of teachers at high-poverty schools. At the high school level, 95% of mathematics teachers at low-poverty schools had in-field degrees, compared with 87% at high-poverty schools.

Although the percentage of mathematics teachers with more than 20 years of experience decreased from 29% in 2003 to 23% in 2011, the percentage of teachers with 10–19 years of experience increased from 27% to 33%, and the percentage of teachers with fewer than 3 years of experience decreased from 19% to 15%. The pattern among science teachers was similar. Overall, in 2011, 85% of public middle and high school mathematics teachers and 90% of science teachers had more than 3 years of experience. The percentage of mathematics teachers with fewer than 3 years of experience was higher at high-poverty schools, however, compared with low-poverty schools (18% versus 10%). The pattern was similar for science teachers.

In 2011, the average base salary of middle and high school teachers was approximately $53,000 for mathematics teachers and $54,000 for science teachers, according to teachers’ reports in SASS. When asked to rate their satisfaction with their salaries, slightly more than half of mathematics teachers, and just under half of science teachers, reported being satisfied. Teachers at high-poverty schools earned less than their counterparts at low-poverty schools, with mathematics teachers earning $10,000 less and science teachers earning $13,000 less on average.

International Comparisons of Teacher Salaries

Teachers’ salaries are associated with the attractiveness of teaching as a profession. The relative earnings in teaching and nonteaching professions correlate with career choices, and there is less attrition among teachers with higher salaries (Feng 2014; Gilpin 2012; James et al. 2011; OECD 2005).

The United States ranks low among developed countries with respect to the ratio of teachers’ salaries to the salaries of other tertiary educated workers. For primary school teachers, the U.S. ranking is 20th of 23 countries. For lower and upper secondary school teachers, the United States is 21st of 23 countries.

Figure 1-7 examines the ratio of teachers’ salaries to the salaries of other tertiary educated workers, comparing these ratios across developed countries. Primary teachers in the United States make 68% of the salary of other tertiary educated workers—that is, a 0.68 ratio. Lower secondary teachers (middle or junior high school) have a ratio of 0.69, whereas upper secondary teachers have a ratio of 0.71. The median relative salary ratio for all 23 developed countries for which data were available ranged from 0.84 to 0.91 for the three education levels. For the top five developed countries, the relative salary ratio ranged from 0.92 to 1.10.

Salaries of teachers in developed countries relative to earnings for tertiary educated workers: 2014


Education level defined by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's International Standard Classification of Education, 2011. Lower secondary corresponds to junior high school or middle school in the United States. Thirty-two Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries are defined as developed according to the International Monetary Fund's "advanced economy" classification. Of these, the data here reflect 23 developed countries for which data were available.


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, 2016.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2018

A shortcoming of these data is that they are not adjusted for the level of tertiary education teachers and nonteachers received. For example, if U.S. teachers received fewer years of tertiary education than teachers in other countries, this may help account for some of the salary differences between countries. The OECD, however, provides some data that address this potential shortcoming. Ratios adjusted for amount of tertiary education are available for 11 developed countries, including the United States (OECD 2016). The United States, however, fares worse once the amount of tertiary education is considered: the gap between the U.S. ratio and the average ratio for other countries grows. In short, the ratio of teacher salaries to those of other educated workers is not lower in the United States than in other countries because U.S. teachers receive fewer years of tertiary education.

Another shortcoming of these data is that they do not focus specifically on science and mathematics teachers. However, salaries in the United States for K–12 teachers whose primary focus in teaching is mathematics or science were only 1.7% higher than salaries for other teachers. This suggests that gaps in relative salaries for mathematics and science teachers might be similar to those observed for other teachers.

In summary, U.S. K–12 teachers have lower salaries than other U.S. workers with tertiary education, and the ratio of U.S. K–12 teacher salaries to that of other U.S. tertiary educated workers is smaller than for that of the median OECD country. Although U.S. K–12 teachers make 68% to 71%—depending on grade level—of the salary of other workers with tertiary education, the median for OECD countries ranges from 84% to 91%.