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Starting Teacher Salaries: Discouraging Prospects
Starting Teacher Salaries: Discouraging Prospects
Tony Milanowski
Tony Milanowski

August 2004

Can higher starting salaries attract undergraduate students with career goals related to math, science, or technology to a career in K-12 teaching? If so, what salary levels might be needed? To what extent do personality and work values influence the salary level that would attract these students to teaching? What other characteristics of the teaching profession reduce its attractiveness to these students?

In a recent study for the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), Tony Milanowski conducted eight focus groups on career choice with freshman and sophomore students at a large Midwestern research university. Four focus groups involved students with math, science, applied science, or engineering majors; the other four involved students interested in a teaching career. Milanowski followed up the focus group study with a survey of sophomores and juniors with self-reported majors in mathematics, health occupations, engineering, and pure and applied sciences.

Milanowski found that (a) the math, science, and technology majors considered teaching a low-paid field and (b) pay level was a significant factor making a career as a K-12 math or science teacher less attractive. However, many students said they would consider teaching if it paid substantially more than their current occupational choice. A salary level 45% above the local average would have attracted 48% of the sophomore survey respondents and 37% of the junior respondents to a career in K-12 teaching.

The math and science majors in the focus groups cited salary levels, perceived job demands, and their own abilities and interests as important reasons they were not attracted to a teaching career. Their concerns included doubts about their ability to be good teachers, discomfort with aspects of the job such as being responsible for others or standing in front of a class, and strong attachment to their current career choices. Although the math and science focus group participants identified difficulties in dealing with children, the necessity of taking work home, perceived intellectual monotony, and lack of up-to-date equipment as unattractive aspects of teaching, these were expressed less frequently than concerns about lack of ability or interest in teaching.

On the other hand, prospective teachers in the focus group study said they were attracted to teaching because they enjoyed working with children, wanted to influence or help children, had been successful at tutoring or coaching, and preferred a schedule that would accommodate family demands and provide summers off. Many also cited their own teachers as models inspiring their career choice. Although prospective teachers generally recognized that their occupation was not highly paid, many cited good job security and benefits (e.g., health insurance, pension, and time off) as attractive features.

For a significant minority of the math and science majors, even very large increases in entry pay were unlikely to attract them to teaching. One focus group member, for example, claimed she would not be attracted to teaching even by a salary 50% higher than that she expected from her relatively low-paying field of astronomy.

Milanowski's survey results suggested that the entry salaries for math and science teachers would not have to be raised to the same levels as those in engineering, computer science, or the higher paid health occupations to attract some of these students. But the increases would have to be greater than 5-10% to attract a substantial proportion of them. The amount of increase did differ by student major, with higher increases needed to attract more engineering students than pure and applied science students.


For policymakers interested in implementing higher entry salaries to attract students with math, science, and technology majors to K-12 teaching, Milanowski suggests considering the following factors:

First, significant increases in entry salary (e.g., 25%) would be needed to attract a substantial proportion of these students, though entry salaries would not have to be as high as in many other careers.

Second, it would make sense to target students who are majoring in fields that are not at the top of the pay scale or students who are not expecting top entry salaries. In Milanowski's study, this subsample would have included the pure science and health-related majors.

Third, some students are not going to be attracted to K-12 teaching by the higher salary levels that realistically could be implemented. To consider teaching, some of these students would require a premium over what they expect to earn in their current career choice, due to their commitments to that career or their concerns about their ability to teach. These students are probably not worth trying to attract, both because of their salary expectations and because of their uncertainty about whether they would make good teachers.

Milanowski's results suggest that K-12 teaching could entice math, science and technology majors to become teachers, given a sufficient pay level or compensating differential. However, the fact that a substantial minority of the participating students said they would not consider a career change even to make substantially higher salaries-either because they did not have the needed skills or abilities or because they were committed to another career choice-suggests that the supply of labor to K-12 math and science teaching may not be expanded sufficiently to eliminate shortages by feasible increases in entry pay .

This material was published in different form in Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 11, no. 50 (Dec. 27, 2003). Retrieved July 19, 2004, from

Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.