Strong demand for students with science, technology, engineering and math skills is not translating into higher pay for Minnesota teachers who specialize in those fields.
A Star Tribune review of average salary data for metro educators shows teachers in math, science and technology are not the highest paid, despite what officials say is a crucial lack of science-savvy teachers and intense competition from jobs in these fields promising more — sometimes a lot more — money.
The average salaries of STEM teachers with less than 16 years of experience ranged from less than $40,000 to more than $55,000, with the Bloomington Public School District paying the highest average salary at $57,582, according to an analysis of the most recent state education data available for teachers in the seven-county metro area.
School officials say teacher salaries ebb and flow with demand. Right now, STEM skills are coveted.
“A decade ago we had shortages in special education, industrial technology and foreign languages. But now we have shortages in STEM teachers, physical education and social studies teachers,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
The challenges become more pronounced when factoring in school budget shortfalls, a broader teacher shortage in all fields and intense competition from better-paying industries for people with STEM skills. “We have a teacher shortage, and that is a concern for all of us,” Amoroso said.
There are no quick and easy solutions. In Minnesota, school district administrators negotiate salaries with local unions, which is why there can be wide teacher pay discrepancies across the state.
Doug Mead first started teaching physics in 1999 and soon realized he was earning less than what he was making five years earlier working at a private lab — despite having earned a master’s degree and having more experience.
Now in his 20th year of teaching, Mead says he has to work part-time as a carpenter during summers to supplement his earnings.
“It is frustrating to see my compensation compared to other professions with same levels of educational qualifications,” said Mead, who also teaches chemistry at Farmington High School.
His grievance echoes a growing sense of discontent over pay among educators across the country, with several states witnessing teacher protests and walkouts last spring, raising complaints of low wages and school budget cuts.
Amoroso blames a lack of resources available to school districts over the last 15 years for what he calls a worsening situation.
Leaving the profession
Since the 2008 recession, the state has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession, according to a 2017 report from the Minnesota Department of Education.
Still, Minnesota teachers’ wages are better than those of teachers in many other states.
The average annual salary of public-school teachers in Minnesota in 2017 ($57,346) was close to the U.S. national average of $59,660, according to a survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA).
Though teachers didn’t stage massive protests over pay here, “unfair” compensation remains a key concern, along with a shortage of educators and lack of resources, according to the state teachers’ union.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, says educators in Minnesota have a lot in common with educators in the half a dozen states where the large protests took place. Lack of resources for school districts leads to unfair compensation, she said.
But there are also key differences between Minnesota and states where the teachers demonstrated.
“In some of the states where we saw protests, state legislatures set their salaries,” she said. “In Minnesota, salaries for educators are bargained locally. Legislators have less of a hand.”
Kristine Lamm West, associate professor of economics at St. Catherine University and Aaron J. Sojourner, associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, have been studying teacher hiring and compensation.
They are working with the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school districts on teacher recruitment and retention, and say math and science teachers are particularly hard to keep.
“We know that people with math and science certificates have higher paying options outside of the teaching profession,” Sojourner said. “In the situation of a tight labor market, it is extremely important that compensation of teachers keeps up with compensation in other professions.”
The Star Tribune review also revealed that teachers who work in the St. Paul district earn more, overall, than most of their peers in school districts in the seven-county metro area.
But for teachers just starting out, the Minneapolis School District is the best choice in terms of salary, as it pays rookie teachers, including those who teach STEM, better than all other metro districts — including St. Paul.
The analysis focused on the earnings of teachers whose work is primarily classroom instruction, and excludes individuals who also have administrative roles. It did not include other forms of compensation, including pensions.
Laurin Cathey, executive director of human resources for the St. Paul Public Schools, credited St. Paul’s top-dog status for teacher pay overall to the district and the union having a good contract. However, the challenge, he said, was to find how many teachers considered teaching as a long-term career.
According to the 2018 findings of the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 5 teachers holds a second job to make ends meet.
With schools set to open soon, Mead is busy preparing his lessons.
Though he says the salary issue is always in the back of his mind and he sometimes thinks of returning to the lucrative private sector, he’s drawn back to teaching every time.
“When I see hundreds of kids everyday,” he said, “I think it would be hard to go back.”