A Trick for Attracting Science, Math, and Special Ed Teachers

In the past half-decade, there’s been an intense focus on teacher evaluation, distinguishing “effective” from “ineffective” teachers, and systems for “human capital” management. There’s an irony, though. All of this has tended to overshadow some basic insights regarding efforts to attract and retain terrific teachers. It turns out that it’s easier to find teachers in some fields (social studies, elementary education) than in others (science, special education). And one way we usually attract people who are harder to hire is by paying more—in other words, by dealing with the law of supply and demand.


It can make educators and well-meaning advocates uncomfortable, but that’s how the world works. A nice illustration was provided yesterday when the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) released its annual salary report (Inside Higher Ed has a nice write-up here). CUPA-HR noted that salaries and annual raises vary tremendously across disciplines. For instance, on average, a brand-new assistant professor of computer science and a full professor of history (with 20+ years of experience) will both earn between $85,000 and $90,000 this year.

Across public and private universities, full professors earn the most for teaching law ($145,732), business ($129,904) and engineering ($129,012). Meanwhile, the average full professor makes $79,838 for teaching theology and $92,764 for teaching education. Of the couple dozen fields examined, business is the only one where new assistant professors earn six figures (they make more than $110,000 a year). Meanwhile, in fields like history and English, new assistant professors earn about half that amount—or between $55,000 and $60,000.

Is any of this “fair”? It depends. If you say, “But they’re all professors,” then it obviously seems unfair. But if you consider that trained computer scientists are harder to find than trained historians, then perhaps it’s not unfair for salaries to reflect that. If those skilled in the law and business have more lucrative alternatives outside the academy than parks and recreation professors (a real category), it will cost more to hire competent law and business professors. Should parks and rec professors be paid the same as law professors, even when quality faculty are easier to find? If you say “yes”, keep in mind that the extra pay has to come from somewhere. Perhaps it would require students to pay more tuition or the institution to make cuts elsewhere—perhaps trimming pay for graduate assistants or maintenance staff. That doesn’t seem fair either!

This brings us back to K-12. K-12’s new evaluation and pay systems focus on “effectiveness” and whether teachers teach in a high-poverty school, but most pay little or no attention to what a teacher actually teaches. The reasons are straightforward: for one, differentiating compensation by field is pretty controversial with teachers and, for another, state evaluation models have been built to capture all teachers under a uniform umbrella. The consequence, though, is that these systems generally ignore the fact that it’s a whole lot harder to recruit and retain people with some skills than with others. If that doesn’t change, we’ll keep bemoaning our shortage of science, math, and special education teachers (such as here, here, and here) without much real change.

Now, are there reasons to be leery of varying compensation by field? Absolutely. There’s the question of how much spread is sensible, concerns about impact on morale, and plenty more. But this just argues for facing reality thoughtfully, rather than with hurried “solutions” or over-the-top mandates. The reality is that some knowledge and skills are more in demand than are others, and one consequence is that they cost more. Schools should spend funds with an eye to providing the best possible teaching and learning for students. That’s not happening if schools are simply ignoring supply and demand when it comes to teacher pay.

—Rick Hess

This first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College