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The Nation's Teaching Force

by Richard J. Murnane & Emiliana Vegas - 1997

This commentary assesses the quality of information in the National Center for Education Statistics report "The Condition of Education 1997," which bears on the extent to which the nation is succeeding in staffing all schools with skilled teachers. The commentary focuses on teacher salaries, teacher preparation for diversity, and teacher-student ratio. (Source: ERIC)

In this brief commentary, we assess the quality of information in The Condition of Education 1997 that bears on the extent to which the nation is succeeding in staffing all schools with skilled teachers. Where possible, we draw evidence from other countries to put the U.S. evidence in perspective.

1. Are salaries high enough to attract academically talented college graduates into teaching?

Page 178 of The Condition of Education 1997 provides information on the average annual salaries of public school teachers (in 1996 constant dollars) in selected years from 1960 to 1996. The figures show that the average salary net of inflation was 8 percent higher in 1996 than in 1976. Unfortunately, the figures do not provide useful information about changes in the real earnings prospects for college graduates entering teaching because they mix changes in salary schedules with changes in the average experience of teachers. Between 1976 and 1996, the median years of experience of the nation’s teachers increased from eight to fifteen. As a result, much of the increase in average salary stemmed from the increase in years of experience.

The same table on page 178 provides useful information on the average salaries of beginning teachers in selected years. These figures show that starting salaries net of inflation increased by 17 percent between 1984 and 1996, recovering much of the decline in real salaries that took place during the 1970s. The table would be of even greater value if, in addition to trends in the real starting salaries of teachers, it included information on the real salaries of teachers with, say, twenty years of experience.

Are the increases in teacher starting salaries enough to attract academically talented college graduates into teaching? The answer depends, in part, on the competitiveness of teaching salaries relative to salary opportunities for college graduates in other occupations. In the next The Condition of Education volume it would be useful to provide trend data on the teacher starting salaries relative to the median earnings of, say, twenty five- to thirty -four- year-old four-year college graduates by gender. The value of the relative earnings at one point in time is not informative because it is not clear how talented college graduates weigh ten-month teaching salaries against salaries in occupations that provide less vacation (but perhaps less stress during the ten months that schools are in session). Trends in the relative earnings would provide useful information about changes in the financial attractiveness of teaching relative to alternative occupations. The numbers would show, for example, that in 1972, the average starting salary in teaching was 93 percent of the average annual earnings of twenty-five- to thirty-four- year-old females working full-time in the United States. In 1994, the comparable percentage was 89.1 The decline in the relative earnings of female teachers helps to explain a pattern we have uncovered in High School & Beyond data: namely, that, among female college graduates in the late 1980s, those with high math and reading scores were less likely to become teachers than those with lower scores (Vegas & Murnane, 1997). To a large extent the decline in the ratio of teaching salaries to the earnings of female college graduates over the last twenty years reflects women’s success in gaining entry to occupations formerly closed to them. This is a step forward for the nation. However, a byproduct is that the nation’s schools must compete for talent to a much greater extent than they did thirty years ago.

Would higher teaching salaries, by themselves, lead to a more skilled teaching force? Ballou and Podgursky (1997) argue that this would not occur. Part of their argument is that higher salaries would reduce turnover among all teachers, including the least effective ones. As a result, there would be fewer openings for new teachers. Another part of their argument, also supported by other research (e.g., Manski, 1987; National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, 1996) is that many school districts do not recruit the most talented applicants.

Critics of the Ballou and Podgursky (1997) argument might point to evidence showing that many countries that fare better in international student test score comparisons pay their teachers better than U.S. schools do. For example, Figure 6 illustrates that the ratio of starting teacher salaries to gross domestic product per capita is higher in New Zealand, Germany, and Ireland than in the United States—and these are all countries with better test scores.2

One way to reconcile Ballou and Podgursky’s thesis with the international evidence is to understand that higher salaries are not the only respect in which the education policies of many OECD countries differ from those of the United States. In many other countries, teachers "receive much more extensive training in content and pedagogy before they enter teaching, and they have much more regularly scheduled time for ongoing

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learning and work with their colleagues" (National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, 1996, p.19). It seems likely that changes in these dimensions must be a part of improving the quality of the nation’s teaching profession.

2. Are teachers in schools serving large percentages of poor children as well prepared as teachers in schools serving more affluent children?

One of the most disturbing patterns in The Condition of Education 1997 is that, compared with middle-class white children, minority students and students from low-income families are much more likely to be taught mathematics and other subjects by teachers who have had little academic preparation in their teaching field (pp. 180-181). It seems likely that this teacher staffing pattern contributes to the relatively low math and reading achievement of minority children. These skills differences translate into earnings differences as adults to a much greater extent than was the case twenty years ago (Murnane & Levy, 1996). Indeed, several economists have demonstrated that much of the current differential between the earnings of black males and white males stems from differences in the skills with which black and white students leave high school (Ferguson, 1995; Neal & Johnson, 1996; O’Neill, 1990). Eliminating inequality in the quality of public education is essential to reducing inequality of labor market earnings.

The commonsensical indicators of educational quality included in The Condition of Education 1997 are useful in suggesting potentially serious educational inequalities. Better research evidence is needed, however, to verify the sensible but not well tested hypothesis that teachers who teach out of field are less effective in improving children’s skills than are teachers with strong subject-matter preparation.

3. Are funds for instructional personnel used wisely in U.S. schools?

Pages 136 and 137 of The Condition of Education 1997 present tables and figures showing teachers’ average class size in different types of schools. They are much more informative regarding the experience encountered by the typical student and teacher than the average student/teacher ratios included in many publications. For example, the average student/teacher ratio nationally is 17:1, while the average class size is twenty-four students. The explanation for the difference is that American schools employ a great many specialist teachers who either work with a very few students or who have administrative responsibilities.

A related issue concerns the percentage of instructional staff that consists of teachers (as opposed to pedagogical and support staff). As illustrated in Figure 7, in U.S. schools teachers comprise only 40 percent of instructional staff, while they constitute more than 70 percent in Japanese schools. The relatively large number of classroom teachers per 100 students in Japanese schools creates opportunities for teachers to work together during the school day to develop curricula and sharpen instructional techniques. Forty-six percent of Japanese students are taught by math and science teachers who meet at least once a week with other teachers in their subject area to discuss curriculum or teaching approaches; the

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comparable percentage in the United States is 26 percent.3

The usual debate about instructional staff in the United States is whether it is worth the money to hire additional teachers in order to reduce class size. Rarely do educators argue about the merits of reallocating instructional budgets to replace specialists and support staff with classroom teachers. As Miles and Darling-Hammond (1997) report, a few schools have overcome the obstacles to allocating instructional resources creatively. Their successes illustrate the importance of transcending the class size debate and taking a fresh look at how best to organize instructional resources in U.S. schools.


Comparison of the 1997 edition of The Condition of Education with the 1977 edition shows vividly the progress that the U.S. Department of Education has made in providing useful information on the U.S. teaching force. The 1977 edition had no information on teacher attrition, the extent of out-of-field teaching, or trends in teachers’ starting salaries. Much of the progress came with the development and implementation of the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which was first introduced in 1987 and now provides systematic trend data on the characteristics of the nation’s teaching force (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1994). As a result of SASS and other new data-collection efforts, much more is known about the trends in the composition of today’s teaching force than was true for the 1977 teaching force.

As is inevitable, the progress in developing indicators of the quality of the teaching force has raised expectations—hence the call for yet better indicators. The changes in the labor market that have increased the importance of skills in determining earnings make it important to learn more about the skills of the nation’s teaching force and especially about the relative quality of the skills of teachers in schools serving children from low-income families.


1 To estimate these percentages, we used data on beginning teacher salaries generously provided by Howard Nelson from the American Federation of Teachers and median wage estimates using data from the Current Population Survey.

2 Here we refer to test scores in mathematics among eighth graders who participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1994-1995.

3 Source: IEA Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Chestnut Hill, MA: TIMSS International Study Center, Boston College.

4 In the OECD (1995) document, teachers are defined as persons whose professional activity involved the transmitting of knowledge, attitudes, and skills that are stipulated in a formal curriculum program to students enrolled in a formal educational institution. Non- teaching staff includes two categories: other pedagogical staff, including principals, head-masters, supervisors, counselors, psychologists, librarians, etc.; and support staff, including clerical personnel, building operations and maintenance personnel, food service workers, etc. (p. 174).


Ballou, D., & Podgursky, M. (1997). Teacher pay and teacher quality . Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Ferguson, R. (1995). Shifting challenges: Fifty years of economic change toward black white earnings inequality. Daedalus24(1), 37-76.

Manski, C. F. (1987). Academic ability, earnings, and the decision to become a teacher: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972. In D.A. Wise (Ed.), Public sector payrolls (pp. 291-316). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press .

Miles, K. H., & and Darling- Hammond L. (1997). Rethinking the allocation of teaching resources: some lessons from high performing schools . Paper prepared for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center for Education Research, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Murnane, R. J., & Levy, F. (1996). Teaching the new basic skills: Principles for educating children to thrive in a changing economy . New York: The Free Press.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (1994). Schools and staffing survey 1993-94. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America’s future. New York: Author.

Neal, D. A., & Johnson, W. R.. (1996). The role of premarket factors in black-white wage differences. Journal of Political Economy 104 (5), 869-895.

O’Neill, June. 1990. The role of human capital in earnings differences between black and white men. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 4 (4), 25-45.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (1995). Education at a glance: OECD indicators . Paris: Author.

Vegas, E., & Murnane, R. J. (1997). Who enters teaching?: Effects of current policies. Working Paper, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 1, 1997, p. 36-44
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10379, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:48:35 PM

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