Editorial: What do special educators make?

Although I totally get that the question is important, I feel a good bit of amusement when someone asks me, “What do special ed teachers make?” Why might I find that amusing?

Well, one reason is pretty obvious (at least, to me): Special educators aren’t into teaching because it’s going to make them wealthy. Setting aside that notion that teachers completely do not care about compensation (of course they care!) and that they have an altruistic steak, a person pretty much has to “love” the work of teaching. Data show that lots of teachers leave the profession during the first few years they are on the job; among teachers in general, about 8% leave the profession annually and another 8% move to different schools (Boe et al., 2012; Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). So, there must be some downside to teaching.

Another reason that we might find the question humorous is that comparisons between others’ salaries and teachers’ salaries are, well, rediculous. It just seems silly that teachers do not receive the high pay associated with other jobs. Of course, I’m cherry-picking the comparisons here but, for example, what if teachers earned a 10th of what corporate executives take home in total compensation? According to Mishel and Kandra (2021) of the Econmic Policy Institute, the average compensation for chief executive officers employed by the top US firms grew substantially in 2020 (despite the pandemic) and it was $21.4 million; so, let’s see, 10% would be a cool $2.4 million a year for a teacher—shoot, 1% would be $240,000! Or, how about just making the average salary of professional athletes? According to the data published on football-reference.com, the mean salary for NFL players is about $1.8 million per year (range: $75K to $31.4 million)…not bad for bashing into other large people! That average salary would be dang good for teaching children to read, write, compute, and behave.

To be sure, teachers do have perks. There’re the holidays and the summers. And, there’s the satisfaction that comes from making a difference in others’ lives. That’s an invaluable perk. BTW, I am particularly fond of the way the slam poet, Taylor Mali, tells this simple perspective when he answered a fellow dinner guest’s question, “What do teachers make?” I encourage readers to watch his YouTube video…but heed a warning that there are some words and gestures that some may consider NSFW.

Back to the thread: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020), special education teachers on average (median) make a little more than $64,000 per year. Assuming teachers “only” work 10 months a year for 22 working days a month and 8 hours a day, that’s something a little north of $36 per hour. I’d say that raising teachers pay by 25% would represent a good start toward compensation that more closely aligns with the importance of the work. What is more, there is evidence that “relatively modest financial incentives may make a difference in special educators’ retention” (Billingsly & Bettini, 2019, p. 731; read the entire article to help understand the factors contributing to attrition among special education teachers). An annual salary of $80,000 sounds a heckuva lot better than $64,000—even considering the holidays and summers, and saying nothing about the overtime hours.

Perhaps the school closures associated with SARS-CoV-19 have opened the public’s eyes to the importance of the contributions that teachers, and especially special education teachers, make to the fabric and function of our society. Even without those closures, though, it’s about time to pay teachers way better.

References

Billingsley, B., & Bettini, E. (2019). Special education teacher attrition and retention: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 89(5), 697-744.

Boe, E. E., Cook, L. H., & Sunderland, R. J. (2008). Teacher turnover: Examining exit attrition, teaching area transfer, and school migration. Exceptional Children, 75, 7– 31. doi:10.1177/001440290807500101

Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Learning Policy Institute.

Football-reference.com (2020). NFL 2020 player salaries. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/salary.htm

Mishell, L., & Kandra, J. (2021). Preliminary data show CEO pay jumped nearly 16% in 2020, while average worker compensation rose 1.8%. Econmic Policy Institute.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Special education teachers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Washington, DC.

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