Elementary Pay Inequity


There’s a big pay inequity issue in the Chicago suburbs. No, it’s got nothing to do with gender.  People often speak about equal pay for women as an important issue to address, and it is.  Depending on who’s doing the tallying, women earn roughly 20% less than men.  You can get into huge arguments about the “why” behind that figure, but most of us believe (at least I do) that a woman should get equal pay for doing the same job a man does.  And fortunately for me, I worked in a field where this is mostly true.

Teachers get paid based on contracts they negotiate which lay out salaries determined by teaching experience and education.  You make more money the longer you teach and the more degrees you earn, but salaries have nothing to do with gender.  There are those who might claim (with some justification) that there has been gender bias when it comes to promotions to administrative positions, but I worked with female department chairs, assistant principals, and principals more and more regularly as my career went on.  I’d guess that in the Chicago area, at least, the last education position where women have yet to be adequately represented is school district superintendent.  Overall, though, progress has definitely been made in this area.  So while not perfect, job fairness issues based on gender are relatively rare in education, and my teacher salary issues are not male versus female.  No, the biggest problem with pay equity in education in the Chicagoland area is the difference between elementary and secondary districts.  I can’t think of any justifiable reasons why elementary teachers should be paid so much less than high school teachers—it simply isn’t right.

So before we go any further, I’d better supply some evidence to use as we get into the analysis behind that assertion.  Below you will find salaries for teachers just starting out (with a Bachelor’s degree from a four-year college), for those with 10 years of experience and a Master’s degree, and for those with 20 years of experience and the maximum education compensated (generally 30-60 graduate credit hours beyond a Master’s).  These figures come from the salary schedules of school districts in DuPage County which can be found on the school districts’ web sites.  I’ve also coded the districts1,2,3,or4 so you can see which elementary and high school districts are in the same communities.

High School Districts Starting Salary, BA Degree 10 Years’ Experience,  Master’s Degree 20 Years’ Experience, Master’s + 30/60 hours
Hinsdale Township #861 $52,913 $87,171 $127,535
Glenbard  #872 50,568 82,426 121,363
DuPage #883 (Willowbrook, Addison Trail) 50,446 76,022 118,044
Downers Grove #994 $50,456 $76,087 $109,292
Elementary School Districts Starting Salary, BA Degree 10 Years’ Experience,  Master’s Degree 20 Years’ Experience, Master’s + 30/60 hours
Gower #621 $45,852 $69,236 $91,474
Hinsdale #1811 49,746 80,588 110,435
Eisenhower #611, 4 42,697 58,840 79,225
Community Consolidated #892 45,703 67,865 98,648
Villa Park #453 40,469 64,751 95,102
Downers Grove #584 43,640 76,370 105,172
Center Cass #664 42,742 61,549 84,202
Average for High School $51,096 $80,427 $119,059
Average for Elementary 44,407 (-15.1%) 68,457 (-17.5%) 94,894 (-25.5%)

1-4 Matches high school districts with elementary school districts in the same communities

Definitely not a comprehensive list, by any standard, but it does have a variety of school districts in DuPage, one of the better places to teach in the country. Thus, at least around here (and that would include Cook and Lake Counties as well), elementary teachers working in the same communities as high school teachers are making significantly less money.  Plus, this chart shows that the pay difference widens the more experience and education a teacher has.

So why is that wrong?  Again, some basis for the following analysis:  I spent the first eight years of my teaching career working in an elementary district, teaching Language Arts to eighth graders.  Then I moved to a high school district where I taught English to ninth graders for twenty-five years.  Based on my personal experience, I can state without any reservations that working in the junior high was just as difficult as teaching in the high school; the key difference was that I made significantly more each year teaching ninth-grade English instead of eighth-grade Language Arts.  (In 1987-88, the year I moved from my junior high to my new job in high school, my salary would have been $25,004 in the junior high, but instead I made $30,804, a cool 23% increase.)

There are some cosmetic differences in the two levels’ teaching day.  Elementary teachers have a wider variance in assignments:  A first-grade teacher will be with the same 25 students all day, with less preparation time during a shorter school day compared to a seventh-grade teacher who will generally teach six of eight 40-42-minute periods to as many as six different classes.  In a high school setting, teachers usually teach for five 50-minute periods to five different sets of kids.  While it’s harder to compare the total teaching time of that the first-grade teacher, the load for the seventh-grade teacher compared to the high school teacher is virtually the same—240-252 minutes of instruction versus 250 minutes.  If anything, the junior high teacher has a larger load since that extra glass (6 versus 5) will generate more parent contacts, papers to evaluate, and grades to enter.  The number of days worked (the school year) is virtually identical as more and more, elementary districts sync their calendars to those of the high schools their students will attend.  This evolved mostly as a convenience for families with one kid in an elementary school and another in the high school.  Regardless, from an hours-spent-working perspective, there isn’t a significant difference.

That leads to the more subjective differences, things like age of students, difficulty of material, grading, stress level, and outside pressure.  And don’t for a second think I’m suggesting all those areas are the same for kindergarten through twelfth grade.  But none of those differences clearly support that high school teachers merit higher salaries.  Let’s see why.

First, and most obviously, the students are very different.  The older the kid gets, the bigger and scarier he can be (not to mention much less cute).  There aren’t too many second graders who pose a physical threat to their teachers, but many juniors do.  So chalk up one for the high school teachers—their students can be more intimidating.  But how many times does a high school teacher have to deal with a runny nose, an “accident,” or somebody throwing a tantrum?  Junior high drama can be intense with traumatized, volatile young teens in every classroom.  As any parent can tell you, each stage in a child’s development poses challenges, and every child will exhibit those challenges to different degrees.  The holy terror of third grade might be a sweetheart freshman, while that wonderful fifth-grader grows up to be a delinquent sophomore.  I know of no equation or study that has objectified a measurable way to determine which age group is more difficult to handle.  And in the suburbs, the “threat” factor of physical harm from a teenager is extremely rare.  The maturation differences of various ages certainly don’t justify the pay gap; that’s for sure.

The material to be taught does get tougher as you proceed through the grades, so some might try to use that as a claim for better high school pay.  Those people, however, would lose that battle, I believe.  Getting kids to start reading and computing present the most important teaching moments in education.  Sure, “Dick and Jane Take Spot for a Walk” doesn’t seem hard to teach compared to a Shakespearian sonnet, but that’s only true from an adult perspective.  Turning those meaningless symbols on a page into comprehensible ideas is arguably the toughest, most worthy job teachers have, and Advanced Placement English students being asked to analyze that sonnet would have no chance at success whatsoever had it not been for the painstaking, difficult groundwork at least eight or nine previous teachers had laid.  Yes, high school teachers help guide their students to scale the academic Himalayan summits, but they never would get that opportunity if it hadn’t been for all the base camps which had been established by other Sherpas on the way up the mountains.  (Yes, ex-high school English teachers do tend toward colorful metaphors.)  Until you get that kid to understand how one plus one equals two, trigonometry won’t be possible.  You don’t deserve more money just because the reading level of your text is higher or your equations more complex; it’s the teaching, not the material, that’s the true challenge, and that challenge exists equally for all the grades.

Pressures from the outside and daily stress again are different, so there’s really no way to quantify which level has it tougher.  Little kids just need and demand more attention than surly adolescents, so I would say that the pressure on elementary teachers is greater in the classroom.  They certainly don’t have as many “test and rest” days as high school teachers do.  But those tests generate more paperwork—the bane of my English teaching days—which would mean that high school teachers are more under the gun after school hours with things to evaluate.  That difference, however, will vary just as much based on the subject matter being taught:  High school art or social studies teachers might not have as much to grade at home as junior high language arts or math teachers.  And that variation will also exist within departments at both levels—one high school English teacher will assign more essays than another.  There are simply no absolutes that would prove high school teachers have more out-of-class work than elementary teachers.  Hey, I never spent much time on bulletin boards, stapling up some student work every once in a while; whereas my fifth-grade teaching mother would slave over hers, changing them constantly based on seasons, holidays, historical events, and the popularity/cuteness of various woodland creatures.

Parents are more involved with their first graders than they are with their seniors, so elementary teachers have more contact with parents (both a good and a bad thing, but definitely time consuming).  The stakes are perceived as higher by parents of high schoolers, though, so their teachers get more challenges on grades and more tense confrontations.  Again, different, but I don’t see how you could say that one is worth significantly more pay.  The standardized testing frenzy of the last decade impacts all levels equally, from what I’ve seen, and the media bashes teachers in general without making too many distinctions between grade levels.

Obviously, there are many other ways to compare the jobs of elementary and high school teachers, but having been both, I truly believe that there is nothing so much more difficult about teaching high school that it should result in such a disparity in salaries.  And nationally, the gap is much smaller.  The most recent figures I could find showed that the median salaries for elementary teachers across the nation were about 4.3% less than high school teachers ($53,739 versus $56,034 according to http://www1.salary.com/High-School-Teacher-Salary.html).  You could probably account for most of that difference in the extra-curricular opportunities high schools have (coaching and clubs that lead to extra stipends); many of which are not available in elementary schools.

That begs two questions:  Why is it that this large gap exists here in the Chicago suburbs, and what should be done about it.  Sounds like the topics for the next two articles in this blog to me, so we’ll see you next time with some ideas about that first question.  For more on the differences between elementary and high school districts, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.



  1. Pingback: Pay Inequity: What to Do? |
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