Teachers Pay Extra for a Purposeful Career

Balancing purposeful work against profitable work is a tension in every industry and profession, but for teachers the scales are tipped from the outset. Nationally, teachers in the U.S. make just over three-quarters as much as other comparably educated workers make. In effect, the profession comes with a built-in tax on earning potential.

There is no entirely fair system of taxation, in part because it is hard to agree on a definition of “fairness” all stakeholders can agree on. But it is inarguable that teachers are the lynchpin of education. Schools simply cannot function without them, yet our current system forces teachers to put purpose well ahead of profit. Beyond questions of fairness, this ought to shine a light on how we talk and think about education entirely.

Rethinking ROI

We know without even having to look at income data that teachers, by and large, are not doing what they do for the money or the prestige. Just consider the continuing education pathways teachers may pursue: the PhD and the EdD.

The difference is often marginal, but generally comes down to a matter of the role of research. A PhD in education mirrors the knowledge-expansion formula other PhD-level programs, with an emphasis on developing research over an extended period, while modern EdD programs focus more on expanding leadership skills, with an emphasis on applying research and accessibility for working professionals.

What both advanced degrees have in common is outcomes.

Evidence suggests that while teachers pursuing either credential expect some positive impact on their careers (advancement to administrative positions, increased compensation), the self-reported satisfaction of graduates exceeded any other measure of outcomes from the degrees. In other words, teachers appreciate the skills and knowledge they gain through advanced study, but do not necessarily get any material rewards for their credentials.

They approach their work with greater confidence and larger toolkits, while they approach new roles or advancement with mostly a symbolic value-add in the eyes of employers. Even at the highest level, it seems, the purpose-profit deck is stacked.


Taxing Altruism

Not only do educators take a potential pay cut by entering the field, their continuing education pathways offer a better chance of personal development than career advancement. They pay, repeatedly, for an opportunity to maximize their impact as teachers, with no guarantee of reward.

At every level, this demonstrates that teachers clearly aren’t in it for the money.

Perhaps teachers recognize that the best way to contextualize education and learning is not merely as a transactional relationship, where more learning corresponds with more earning. Education, first and foremost, is about personal development, not a strategic advantage.

That message is often buried today beneath data on earning potential and career outcomes anchored to various levels of academic attainment. We assess degrees based on the salaries commanded by graduates, even rank schools according to the relative incomes of their alumni.

Yet survey after survey and paper after paper reports that purpose, not profit, is what workers want most from their jobs. Work-life balance, job satisfaction, engagement–this is where traditional ROI equations fall apart with their exclusive focus on money in, money out.

One More Lesson

The point of discussions about education, from our curricular priorities to guiding students from preschool to the university, should not be overwhelmed by economics. Teachers have been guiding us by example on this point by paying a growing tax to stay in their profession, adding value without maximizing their own reward. Education opens doors to earning and contributing more.


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