Key and Peele sketch raises an important question: Why aren’t teachers paid more?

Jordan Peele, left, and Keegan-Michael Key at the 73rd Annual George Foster Peabody Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in May 2014, in New York. CREDIT: EVAN AGOSTINI, INVISION, AP
Jordan Peele, left, and Keegan-Michael Key at the 73rd Annual George Foster Peabody Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in May 2014, in New York. CREDIT: EVAN AGOSTINI, INVISION, AP

Key & Peele released a new sketch, “TeachersCenter,” that focuses on the ways our society devalues teachers by comparing them to professional athletes. Most of the time they focused on salaries and endorsements. The video, posted on YouTube Tuesday, referenced SportsCenter with Key & Peele acting as sportscasters and featured gems such as an English teacher announcing she was bringing her talents back to New York in a press conference, and a rags-to-riches story of an all-star math teacher:

“Mike Yoast has an incredible story. His father living paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro-football player. Kid was a natural mathlete.”

The sketch ends with an English teacher in a luxury car commercial, in which she wears gowns, dramatically bites into an apple and says, “I am the future.”

The sketch is a reminder that teaching is not considered a glamorous profession, nor in the eyes of many educators, a well-paid one. A Georgetown University report from the Center on Education and the Workforce showed that the 10 majors with the lowest median earnings included childhood education, at $39,000, studio arts, social work, teacher education and visual and performing arts at $42,000 median salary and theology and religious vocations and elementary education at $43,000.

How do teacher salaries compare?

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Teacher salaries in general are 40 percent lower (at $36,141) than other professions that require college degrees, according to the 2011 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development paper, “Building a High Quality Teaching Profession.”


Like any field, a high salary denotes how much we value a profession in the marketplace, says Lisette Partelow, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“In this country, salary and status are very much intertwined. Better working conditions and a good relationship with the principal are very important to teachers, but just like in other professions, pay can be an important lever for attracting and retaining teachers,” Partelow said.

As states discuss education reforms such as merit pay for teachers and tying test scores to teacher evaluations, the issue of teacher salaries has become increasingly relevant. When discussing teacher salaries, it’s important to look at cost of living, since a teacher earning $36,141 in a rural town in upstate New York can afford much more than a teacher living in the greater New York City area who is making the same salary.

How does cost of living factor in?

An April 2015 Oklahoma State University and IZA research network paper adjusted teacher salaries for cost of living and found that Rhode Island ranked No. 1, followed by Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, and California. The worst salaries when you adjust for cost-of-living were in Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.


In many states across the country, teacher pay has either budged very little or is actually declining over the past 10 years, The Teacher Salary Project reported.

Possibilities for determining teacher pay

Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, says one of the best examples of teacher pay reform is District of Columbia Public Schools, which introduced IMPACTplus in 2009.

The evaluation system uses measures of student performance and observations to raise to teachers’ base salaries and provide annual bonuses. A Stanford Graduate School of Education and the University of Virginia Curry School of Education study looking at the 2010 and 2012 school years showed that the district retained 92 percent of teachers who were rated highly effective. It also kept 86 percent of its effective teachers while 59 percent of minimally effective teachers stayed at the district.

What are governors doing to raise teacher salaries?

In North Carolina, teacher salaries were down 15.7 percent, Florida’s teacher salaries declined 7.3 percent and in West Virginia, teacher salaries fell 3.4 percent. The states with some of the highest increases were New York at a 10.6 percent raise in the past 10 years, Massachusetts at 14.1 percent, and Wyoming, where teacher salaries rose 18 percent increase.


Governors’ approaches to raising teacher salaries have been fairly diverse but the issue is gaining some momentum, and across party lines. Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proposed a $20,000 bonus for teachers who were rated highly effective on teacher evaluations, but he would need the district and local teachers unions to sign on to the measure and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew hasn’t budged from his position last year.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) introduced an education reform plan in 2013 that would give teachers leadership roles and higher pay. The new Teacher Leadership and Compensation System will be launching in 39 school districts that have opted to use it during the 2015–16 school year.

Last year, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) advocated for a 2 percent increase for teacher salaries across the board. The state Senate passed a raise of $837 for each teacher, without test-based performance requirements. The bill also referenced a goal to raise salaries to $43,000 by 2019, compared to $32,512, the salary teachers received in July of last year. Florida Governor Rick Scott attempted to raise teacher pay sans any requirements but the legislature passed a performance-based raise. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s office told the project he did not have a plan to raise teacher salaries in the near future. Teacher salaries were ranked fifth in cost-of-living adjusted salaries.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) proposed to raise teacher salaries in this year’s state of the state address, which would require $100,000 million. Haslam didn’t raise salaries last year after he promised to raise salaries 2 percent due to a $160 million budget gap.

However, there are plenty of governors who are not moving on the issue of teacher pay or even referencing a need for merit pay. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was contacted for comment by The Teacher Salary Project, Walker’s office and they said the governor is not planning any programs to increase teacher salaries. The governor proposed to slash education funding by $300 million this year.