REPORT: How much are teachers really paid?

A Nationwide Analysis of Teacher Pay

September 3, 2014

Report by:

Pamela Villarreal
Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis

Executive Summary by:

Nick Novak
Director of Communications at the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy


Christian D’Andrea
Education Policy Analyst at the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy


Los Angeles and New York City elementary school teachers are some of the highest paid in the country according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It is no surprise that the country’s two largest cities would be atop this list, but what may be surprising is the city that beats New York and L.A.

Elementary school teachers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin are the highest paid amongst the nation’s large cities, according to this study from the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy and the National Center for Policy Analysis.

The joint report looks at median elementary school teacher pay, not including fringe benefits, in 60 selected metropolitan areas. Cities were selected on the basis of availability of data, their population and for geographic balance.

Comparing nominal teachers’ salaries provides a basic look into educator pay in the United States, but for a true comparison, salaries must be adjusted for the cost of living in each metro area. When adjusted for cost of living, Los Angeles drops from second highest ($74,280 – nominal) to 17th highest ($56,963 – adjusted). New York City drops even further, from third highest ($73,000) to 59th out of 60 ($33,152).

Teachers in Milwaukee do not move from the top spot, however. When adjusted for cost of living, teacher pay drops slightly from $74,540 to $73,078.

While high-cost cities like Los Angeles and New York see significant drops when teachers’ median pay is adjusted, less expensive cities like Memphis, Tennessee and Columbus, Ohio see major gains. Median teacher pay in Memphis jumps $8,851, from $51,770 to $60,621. Columbus teachers’ pay increases even more, from $61,050 to $70,011 – a difference of $8,961.

The median adjusted salaries in the 60 metro areas range from $32,312 in Honolulu, Hawaii to $73,078 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The national median salary for an elementary school teacher is $53,590.

While this study looks at median teacher pay, it also questions how well students perform in these cities. Do the metro areas with the highest adjusted teacher pay have students performing at the highest level? The answer is a resounding no.

In fact, of the 19 metro areas that have data available for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – also known as the Nation’s Report Card – the four cities with the worst test scores are the four cities with the highest paid teachers (Detroit, MI; Cleveland, OH; Fresno, CA and Milwaukee, WI).

Los Angeles students outpace Milwaukee students in spite of the fact that their teachers’ adjusted median pay is about $16,000 less. New York students perform even better on the NAEP tests despite adjusted median teacher pay that is nearly $40,000 less than teachers in Milwaukee.

It is clear that Milwaukee has more work to do when it comes to educational performance. According to the latest statewide standardized testing, only 24.1 percent of fourth-grade students are proficient in math and only 16.8 percent of fourth-grade students are proficient in reading. Both are about half of the statewide average.

While teacher pay varies greatly across the country, Milwaukee makes it clear that higher pay does not always translate into higher test scores. Moving forward, policy makers may need to look to other educational reforms if they intend on better preparing students for success.

Read the full report in PDF format by clicking here.