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If Someone's Job Has an "Appreciation Week," They Are Underpaid: Digging into the Gender Wage Gap for Teachers

Why Teacher Appreciation Week Highlights Unfair Pay

It's Teacher Appreciation Week, that time each year when we make a special effort to recognize the hard work of educators. While well-intentioned, the popularity of this saying highlights a hard truth: "If someone's job has an 'appreciation week,' they are being underpaid." This rings especially true for the teaching profession in K-12 public schools, which relies heavily on women's labor.

Around 75% of teachers are female, yet male teachers still earn an estimated $5,000 more per year on average compared to their female counterparts. The gender wage gap is even worse for teachers of color, who are more likely to work in underfunded schools in low-income communities. As we celebrate teachers this week, let's also take a closer look at these pay disparities. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution dug into nationally representative survey data to better understand the sources of the gender wage gap in education.

Key Findings: Uncovering the Sources of the Teacher Gender Wage Gap

1. Gender wage gaps exist across all sources of teacher income, including base salary, extra duty pay, and summer jobs. The largest gap was in extra duty pay, with male teachers earning an average of $2,039 more than female teachers before adjusting for other factors.

2. Observable teacher characteristics like education and experience explain some but not all of the gender wage gap. After controlling for these factors, a $2,200 annual pay gap between men and women teachers remains.

3. Differences in extra duty pay are the biggest driver of the adjusted wage gap. Male teachers are more likely to both participate in and get paid for extra duties compared to female teachers, especially when they are in their 20s-40s and have young kids at home. Having a male principal also increases the chances of male teachers getting paid for extra work.

4. Gender gaps manifest differently depending on union strength. In places with weaker unions, the gap is larger in extra duty pay, while in strong union districts, the base pay gap is bigger. This suggests pay inequities shape-shift into whatever parts of compensation aren't as strictly governed by collective bargaining agreements.

5. Teachers of color, who are disproportionately women, often face even larger wage penalties. They are more likely to work in high-poverty schools that receive less funding. A study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 45% of high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than the average for other schools in their district (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).

How underpaid are teachers in your state?

Depending on the state, teachers make between 3.4% and 35.9% less than other comparable college-educated workers

Depending on the state, teachers make between 3.4% and 35.9% less than other comparable college-educated workers

Potential Factors: What's Driving Gender and Racial Wage Gaps for Teachers?

So what's behind these stubborn gender and racial wage gaps in a profession dominated by women? The Brookings researchers point to several potential factors:

- Historical perceptions of teaching as "women's work" that have kept overall pay in the profession low persist to this day. In the 2017-18 school year, women made up 76% of public school teachers, yet their average base salaries were nearly $2,200 lower than their male colleagues (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020).

- Systemic inequalities in school funding, with high-poverty schools that disproportionately employ teachers of color receiving less state and local funding.

- Political deprioritization of education funding overall. In 2018, teacher protests across multiple states highlighted the issue of low pay (Pearce, 2018).

- Societal expectations around women handling more childcare and household duties, reducing their availability for extra paid work.

- Perceptions of teaching as a "noble" profession not requiring high salaries, or the belief that summers off justify lower pay. A 2018 Pew survey found mixed public opinions on teacher pay (Pew Research Center, 2018).

- Lack of transparency around supplemental pay and how those decisions get made.

- Bias and discrimination, whether conscious or not, on the part of administrators (especially male principals) in terms of who gets tapped for and compensated for extra responsibilities.

- Varying collective bargaining power of teachers' unions across states. Limits on unions' ability to negotiate for higher base pay and supplemental compensation likely contribute to wage gaps. In Wisconsin, the passage of Act 10 in 2011 effectively eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees, including teachers, which led to a decrease in teacher salaries and benefits (Madland & Rowell, 2017).

Levers to Close Gender and Racial Wage Gaps in Education

Encouragingly, the analysis also highlights some policy levers that could help close gender and racial wage gaps among teachers:

- Requiring regular reporting and transparency on district payroll data and supplemental pay policies

- Strengthening collective bargaining agreements to standardize extra duty compensation

- Increasing funding and resources for high-poverty schools that disproportionately serve students of color and employ teachers of color

- Implementing salary history bans so past pay disparities don't get passed on to new jobs

- Using participatory budgeting to give teachers and the community more say in how extra pay gets allocated

Appreciating Teachers Means Pushing for Pay Equity

As we express our appreciation for teachers this week and beyond, we must also advocate for all educators to be fairly compensated for their important work with students, regardless of gender or race. The Brookings study makes clear that while some of the wage gap arises from different career choices, historic gender roles, systemic racial inequities in school funding, political priorities, societal perceptions, and bias likely play significant roles as well, especially when it comes to extra pay beyond base salary. Women of color sitting at the intersection of these biases and barriers often face the steepest climb to pay equity.

Shining a brighter light on these compounded inequities and enacting smart policies to address them is crucial if we want to properly value the work of the women, and particularly the women of color, who make up the majority of our educator workforce. Our appreciation must be matched with action to eliminate unfair pay practices. Let's push to make next year's Teacher Appreciation Week a celebration of progress toward closing gender and racial wage gaps in education. When we uplift equity for teachers, we uplift equity for the diverse students they serve.

Sparking Conversation through Gamification: Inequalityopoly as a Tool for Exploring Pay Inequity

The complex factors contributing to gender and racial wage gaps in education demonstrate the importance of open dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion. One engaging way to explore these issues is through Inequality-opoly, a board game designed to spark conversation about structural inequality in America. By simulating real-world disparities in education, housing, employment, and the criminal justice system, Inequality-opoly encourages players to grapple with how race, gender, and other identities shape economic outcomes and opportunities.

Visit to learn more about how this game can facilitate meaningful discussions on topics like the teacher pay gap. Inequality-opoly provides a valuable entry point for diving into challenging issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and for collectively brainstorming solutions to create a more just society.


- Madland, D., & Rowell, A. (2017). Attacks on Public-Sector Unions Harm States: How Act 10 Has Affected Education in Wisconsin. Center for American Progress.

- Pearce, M. (2018, April 12). Teacher walkouts: What to know about the protests sweeping the nation. Los Angeles Times.

- Pew Research Center. (2018, September 5). Most Americans say U.S. does not spend enough on education.

- National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Characteristics of Public School Teachers. Retrieved from

- U.S. Department of Education. (2011). More than 40% of low-income schools don't get a fair share of state and local funds, Department of Education research finds.

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