Teacher Salaries and Household Income By State

Via Valerie Strauss, here’s an interactive map of average teacher salaries by state.

It’s sort of fun to play with, but the problem is that “average teacher salary by state” is actually not all that meaningful when states can be very different from each other. Virginia and Arizona, for example, have almost identical (average) teacher salaries, but are very different places to live.

What I really want is some sense for what teachers’ salaries are “worth” in each state, or some idea what teachers’ salaries amount to in different contexts. There’s probably no single measure that really captures that information, but a good first step might be comparing average teacher salaries to the median household income in each state.

Fortunately, the Census Bureau has made state-by-state household income data available, and in a few minutes I was able to put together this chart. It expresses the average teacher salary in each state (as collected by the NCES for 2012-2013) as a fraction of that state’s median household income (as of 2012).


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As you can see, there’s considerable variation between states in terms of how teachers’ salaries compare to average incomes. At one extreme in Virginia, the average teacher makes about three-quarters of a typical household. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, in New York the “average” teacher makes nearly 60% more than the average household.

Of course, it’s hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from these data because a lot of factors determine what the “right” teacher salary should be in any particular state (to the extent that the “right” teacher salary even exists). It would be worth knowing, for instance, how the cost of living varies by state and what the average salary is in each state for college graduates. The state may not even be the right level of analysis for many purposes.

I put this chart together mostly out of curiosity, and I don’t intend to dedicate my winter break to looking up and putting together all of the variables that might matter. I did, however, find some evidence suggesting that teacher experience probably does not explain much of the variation you see above.

The NCES has teacher experience data broken down by state, though only from as recently as 2007-2008.  If we use those data, it turns out that states with more veteran teaching forces tend to have slightly lower teacher salaries (compared to household incomes), but the relationship is not a strong one.

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For what it’s worth, in 07-08 teachers in New York had a bit less experience on average than teachers in Virginia – 12.3 years vs. 13.5 years – but neither state was very far from the nationwide average of 13 years.1

Again, these charts don’t, by themselves, support any sweeping conclusions about reforming teacher compensation. They are, however, kind of interesting and I think they really are a bit more meaningful than the raw state-by-state salary comparisons you usually see.

  1. The relationship was a bit weaker when I ran the numbers using income and salary data from 2009-2010. []
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