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Comparing Job Content: Teachers and Similar Occupations
Comparing Job Content: Teachers and Similar Occupations

Tony Milanowski
Tony Milanowski

October 2008

Teacher salaries have historically been modest. In other words, nobody goes into teaching to get rich. But exactly how do K–12 teacher salaries compare with those of similar occupations?

The trick lies in defining similar. Does one compare level of formal education? Level of literacy? Job content?

WCER researcher Tony Milanowski has been studying teacher compensation and has published widely on the subject. He recently mined several occupational databases to explore how information about work activities and skill requirements might be used to identify the occupations that most closely resemble the teaching profession and to determine how salaries for those occupations compare to teacher salaries.

The study used data from O*NET, the U.S. Department of Labor’s database of information on the characteristics of more than 1,100 occupations. O*NET includes 17 sets of descriptors covering worker characteristics, worker requirements, occupational requirements, and occupation-specific knowledge and skills. Each occupation in the database is rated on the level, importance, and/or frequency of the job content represented by each of more than 300 descriptors. Milanowski’s study concentrated on two sets of descriptors, basic and cross-functional skills and generalized work activities.

Among other things, Milanowski found that teacher occupations are rated higher than average on skills like learning strategies, monitoring, and operations analysis. They also rate higher on activities like thinking creatively, developing objectives and strategies, and judging qualities of things, services, and people.

Milanowski says this finding suggests that teachers use lots of analytical skills. This analytic dimension to the profession may often be overlooked, he says, within the education policy community and beyond.

Since there are many points of similarity across occupations, and no completely objective way of deciding where to set boundaries, it’s not really possible to produce definitive salary comparison groups, Milanowski acknowledges. But the results from his recent analysis do suggest some interesting implications for teacher pay comparisons.

For example:

  • Elementary, middle, and high school teaching all appear to require about the same level of basic and cross-functional skills.
  • Teaching requires many generalized work activities at about the same level of complexity as the average bachelor’s degree–requiring occupation. Milanowski says this supports the practice of comparing teaching to other occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, and especially to the average for such occupations.

His study points to three occupational groups as good comparisons for K–12 teachers: (a) counselors, psychologists, and social workers; (b) postsecondary teachers; and (c) health care professionals.

Similarities with some other occupations were unexpected—for example, optometry, dentistry, and fire investigation. Those clustered near teaching because of the similar overall skill level as well as similarities in the specific skills required or activities performed. These results emphasize teaching’s multidimensional nature and demonstrate that teaching shares similarities with a number of jobs outside the “helping professions.”

Milanowski cautions that he has not identified “a canonical set of comparison occupations.” He does hope, however, that this study shows the feasibility of using job content as a basis for salary comparison. And he says that these results suggest that we can broaden our thinking about which occupations are comparable to K–12 teaching.

The research reported in this paper was supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE).

For the full report see the WCER Working  Paper.