Teaching Profession Changes over 50 Years
The teaching profession has undergone major changes over the past 50 years, including significant transformations in salaries, number of teachers, the student-teacher ratio, working hours, responsibilities, out-of-pocket expenses, and parent involvement and communication. These topics are each discussed more in depth below. In addition, a few other interesting differences between then and now are mentioned as well.
As much as possible, data points are provided for each decade between the 1969-70 school year and 2018. However, in many cases, certain statistics were not tracked until later than 1970 or they have only been updated to a certain year. Therefore, in those instances, the closest available data points to 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2018 have been provided to give an overall picture of the changes to the profession. For some statistics, only two or three data points were available, but were deemed sufficient to show change over time.
A percent calculator has been used to calculate percentage increases and decreases, and where necessary, any other calculations not performed by a calculator are indicated in parentheses after triangulated data points. Since this request relies on historical data to illustrate change, sources older than Wonder's standard 24-month time frame have been used.
In 1969-70, the average annual salary for a K-12 teacher in the United States was $8,626 and 48 years later, in 2016-2017, that average salary was $58,950 per year. Based on the Consumer Price Index, this represents a 1.6% decrease over the intervening five decades. While this may not seem significant on a national basis, in some states, the decrease was much steeper. For instance, teachers in Indiana have experienced a drop of 15.7% in annual salaries since 1969, the largest decrease in the country. Colorado is not far behind with a 15% decrease followed by North Carolina (-11.8%) and Michigan (-11.5%).
Some states have been more fortunate and have seen their K-12 teacher salaries increase significantly over the past 50 years. North Dakota teachers have seen the highest increase at 20.6% and Wyoming teachers are close behind at 19.9%. However, it is important to note that in 1969, North Dakota's average teacher salary was nearly $2,000 below the national average at $6,696 per year, while Wyoming's average was just $400 below at $8,232 per year. Even with the significant increase over the five decades, North Dakota's average teacher salary in 2016-17 lagged behind the national average at $51,618 per year, but Wyoming's average was just $300 below the national average in 2016-17 at $58,650.
The state with the lowest average teacher salary in 1969-70 was Mississippi, with an average of $5,798 per year, nearly $3,000 under the national average. Unfortunately, teachers in this southern state have not seen any improvement as their average actually decreased by 6% over the 50-year period. However, they are no longer the state with the lowest average teacher salary in the U.S., as that distinction belonged to South Dakota, with an average 2016-17 salary of $42,668, more than $16,000 below the national average. Surprisingly, this is a 2.4% increase over 1969-70 when the Consumer Price Index is taken into account.
Number of Teachers
In 1970, there were 2,058,744 public school teachers in the United States and by 1979, this number had only increased slightly to 2,184,877. A decade later, in 1989, the number had climbed to 2,356,702 and to 2,598,220 in 1995. Over this period of 25 years, this represented a 26.2% increase. In 1970, California had the most teachers, with 193,000, followed by Texas, with 129,440, but by 1995, Texas had taken the first spot with 240,371 teachers compared to California's 230,849. Texas' increase was an astounding 85.7% while California's was a mere 19.6%. The state with the lowest number of teachers in 1970 was Alaska, with just 3,821 teachers. In 1995, though, Alaska's teacher population had grown 93.1% to 7,379. It was no longer in the bottom spot, as the District of Columbia dropped 29.1% from 7,486 teachers in 1970 to just 5,305 teachers in 1995.
In 2017, the latest year for which confirmed data is available, there were 3,116,588 teacher in the United States. This is an increase of 51.4% over the nearly 50 year-time span and a 19.95% increase over 1995 numbers. Texas has maintained the top spot for number of teachers with 352,809, an increase of 172.6% over 1970 and of 48.78% over 1995. Likewise, the District of Columbia maintained the last spot in terms of teacher numbers, with just 4,958 teachers in 2017, a decrease of 33.77% from 1970 and 6.54% from 1995.
There were 22.3 students for every one teacher in 1970, but this number declined steadily to 19.1 in 1979 and to 17.2 in 1989. However, it went back up slightly to 17.3 in 1995. Overall, between 1970 and 1995, the student-to-teacher ratio decreased by five students per teacher. In 1970, Nevada had the highest student-to-teacher ratio at 25.7, while Vermont had the lowest ratio at 17.9. California had the highest ratio in 1995 at 24 students per every one teacher, while Vermont and New Jersey tied for the lowest ratio at 13.8.
The national student-to-teacher ratio continued its fall over the next 23 years to 15.96 students per teacher in 2017. Over the five-decade span, there has been a decrease of six students per teacher. In 2017, Nevada once again had the highest ratio of students to teachers at 25.86, while Vermont continued to have the lowest ratio at 9.49. In all, Nevada's ratio has increased by 0.16 students per teacher over its 1970 numbers and Vermont's ratio has dropped by over eight students per teacher across five decades.
Based on Bureau of Labor statistics, in 1977, the earliest date for which data exists, teachers worked an average of 1,749 hours per year. This had decreased to 1,737 hours in 1981. Both numbers were above the national average of 1,671 in 1977 and 1,669 in 1981. According to the OECD, the average statutory number of working hours for U.S. teachers per school year in 2018 was 2,031 hours (an average of 2,016 hours for primary teachers, 2,032 for lower secondary teachers, and 2,047 for upper secondary teachers), an increase of 21.5% over 1977. Based on a 180-day school year, this means that in 1977, teachers averaged a 9.7-hour work day (1,749 / 180), but in 2018, they averaged an 11.3-hour work day (2,031 / 180). This data indicates that teachers are required to spend over 20% more time at school than they were 40 years ago.
In addition, this does not take into account overtime, which has also increased for teachers over the years. In 1975, public school teachers in Boston went on strike to protest the requirement of "unpaid 'extra time' for tutoring, meetings, parental discussions and other tasks." Following the strike, the number of required extra time for teachers was "modified to a total of an hour and a half every two weeks," or 45 minutes per week. In 2018, however, the National Education Association found that U.S. teachers spend an "average of 12 hours each week on non-compensated school-related activities such as grading papers, bus duty, and club advising." Assuming the number of unpaid hours for Boston teachers was representative of all public school teachers in 1975, this would be an astonishing increase of 1,500% over the 43-year span.
One area in which teacher responsibilities have greatly increased is standardized testing. Not only are teachers' salaries now often tied to testing outcomes, but the number of tests they are required to give has increased dramatically over the past 40 to 50 years. First, it is very difficult to even find the number of required standardized tests in the 1970s and early 1980s because it wasn't a focus of education. However, in 1970, California public schools tested students every year in grades 1, 2, 3, 6, and 12. This means that the average student in California took five standardized tests from kindergarten through 12th grade (this does not include tests like the SATs and ACTs, which are not considered K-12 exams). In 2015, the latest year for which data has been collected and analyzed, the average student took "112 mandated standardized tests" between pre-K and 12th grade. Assuming most school districts in the U.S. tested as often as California schools did in 1970, this is an increase of 2,140% over five decades.
What this means for teachers is that they must spend more time in the classroom "teaching to the test" rather than focusing on skill development and mastery for each student. Certainly, this looks different for each teacher based on the grade that is taught, but even kindergarten students took more exams in 2015 alone (6.8 on average) than students did over their entire educational experience in 1970. On average, sophomores took the most tests in 2015 at 10.5, which is more than double the number of tests students took between first grade and 12th grade 45 years ago. "Test prep" wasn't even a term in use in the 1970s, but as of 2016, teachers were spending an average of 14 days preparing students for state mandated tests and another 12 days preparing them for district mandated tests. Then, the students spent a total of 19 days taking both state and district mandated exams. This is nearly two months (55 days) of the school year dedicated to teaching the test and taking the test, which means, of course, that teachers are required to fit more non-test content into less time.
In addition to testing responsibilities, teachers also have had to increase their knowledge of teaching students with special needs. In 1989, the percentage of students with disabilities who were in general education classrooms for at least 80% of the school day was 32%. By 2013, this had jumped to 62%, a 30% increase in 24 years. While research shows that 85% of special education students "can master general-education content if they receive educational supports," general education teachers are still required to take on additional duties to ensure these students receive adequate instruction, which often requires more education on the part of the general education teacher. For instance, general teacher training programs only require an "average of 1.5 courses focusing on inclusion or special education compared to about 11 courses for special-education teachers." As such, today's teachers must continue to take more classes to effectively teach all abilities than they did 24 years ago.
Moreover, the number of children identified as having a disability has greatly increased as well, mostly due to better identification methods. In 1976-77, the first year for which data was collected following the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, there were 3,691,833 students with disabilities being served in U.S. public schools. This increased to 4,379,004 in 1986-87 (an 18.6% increase over 10 years) and to 5,927,959 in 1996-97 (a 60.57% increase over 20 years). In 2015-16, the latest year for which data is available, there were 6,700,000 students receiving special education benefits in public schools under IDEA. This is an 81.5% increase over 1976-77. Combined with the percentage of special education students who are spending 80% or more of their day in general education classes, this means that teachers' responsibilities for diversifying their instruction have increased as well.
Even though teachers still spend a significant amount of their own money on supplies and other unreimbursed expenses ($479 on average in 2018), their out-of-pocket expenses have actually decreased since 1992, when the average amount teachers spent on supplies for their classroom was $500. This means the average amount a teacher spends out-of-pocket on classroom supplies has decreased by 4.2%. Currently, elementary school teachers spend more on supplies at an average of $526 per year compared to high school teachers, who spend an average of $430.
Despite extensive searching through union contracts, op-eds, and magazine articles from 1970 through 1991, there were no mentions of the average amount teachers spent of their own money on supplies. While this likely did occur, it apparently did not become a common situation until the 1990s. However, a 1985 article from the Chicago Times indicated that a teacher at an inner city school spent $1,700 out-of-pocket on "a television camera and a videocassette recorder," but she was "later reimbursed by the school." As such, it is fair to assume that many teacher expenses prior to 1990 were actually reimbursed in full. This is certainly not the typical case today, as according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 94% of public school teachers "have spent their own money on school supplies without getting reimbursed." Even if they are reimbursed, it is usually capped at no more than $200.
Parental involvement and communication
Despite the fact that school districts across the country are always searching for ways to get parents more involved with their children's education, data shows that parents have actually become more involved since 1970. In the early part of that decade, there were 2 million parents working as volunteers in schools. This represented about 4% of the total U.S. school-age population in 1970 (2,000,000 / 52,540,000). This had increased to 5 million volunteers in 1985, which represented approximately 11% of the total U.S. school-age population (5,000,000 / 44,782,000). In a 1985 New York Times article, this number was predicted to continue to rise and that has certainly been the case. For instance, the number of parent volunteers in 1996 was 19.4 million (49,762,000 x 0.39) or 39% of the K-12 student population. In 2015-16, 43% of parents volunteered at their students' schools, for total of 22 million volunteers (51,162,000 x 0.43). Over the 50-year span, this means that the number of volunteers in K-12 classrooms has increased by 1,000%.
Likewise, the percentage of parents who have attended a general meeting at their children's school has increased from 77% in 1996 to 89% in 2016, an increase of 12% over 20 years. A similar increase has been seen in the percentage of parents attending school functions, with 67% of them attending one or more school event in 1996 compared to 79% in 2016. The percentage of parents attending parent-teacher conferences, though, has not increased nearly as much, with 72% attending at least one conference in 1996 and 78% attending at least one in 2016. This last statistic could explain why 90% of parents believe their children are performing at or above grade level in math and reading, when the reality is that only 30% are actually meeting standards.
Overall, teachers do want parents to be more involved in their children's school lives and have improved parent-teacher communication to facilitate that involvement. In 1970, the only means of contact with parents were written memos and notices, telephone calls, and in-person meetings, with telephone calls taking the top spot for the communication method of choice for schools and teachers. As stated in a 1989 Education Leadership article, "the telephone becomes the channel for routine communication," so it is clear that in the "1970s and 1980s, the primary way of contacting someone was through a landline so communication was limited to within school hours." This was still true in 1989. However, by the end of the 1980s, the answering machine and electronic mailboxes were becoming mainstream. Teachers were encouraged to use this new technology to enter a "1-3 minute message that describes learning activities, homework, and how parents can support the child's study at home." Another technological advancement called "Compu Call" could be used to place prerecorded calls to "all parents or specific groups of parents." Teachers could then run a report of completed calls the next day and follow up with parents who were not reached.
By 1998, new technologies such as email and social media were not yet making their way into the educational landscape. In fact, 72% of K-8 teachers were still using telephone calls to communicate positive news with parents, while 95% were still relying on newsletters or other printed materials to convey school announcements and information to parents. While the percentage of parents receiving a phone call from their children's school decreased to 42% in 2015-16 (-30% since 1998), the percentage of parents receiving a newsletter remained quite high, at 89% (-6% since 1998). The biggest change in communication methods since 1970 is the advent of email. In 2015-16, 62% of parents reported receiving an email from their children's teacher or school.
Other changes to the teaching profession
- A survey conducted by Harris Poll found that at least 79% of students respected their teachers 50 years ago compared to just 31% in 2014, a drop of 48%.
- The same survey indicated that in the 1970s, 91% of parents respected their children's teachers compared to 49% in 2014, a decrease of 42%.
- In 1975, 74% of teachers supported corporal punishment. In 2019, corporal punishment is illegal in public schools in 31 states and the District of Columbia.
- Scantron was invented in the 1970s and 98% of schools still use this technology to grade multiple choice tests.
- Chalkboards were in all schools in the 1970s and 1980s, but by 1990, whiteboards were outselling chalkboards "by a margin of up to four to one." The primary reason for this change was the proliferation of computers, as chalk dust could damage circuit boards and wiring.
- By 2014, 60% of all K-12 classrooms had interactive whiteboards. This was expected to increase to 73% by 2019.
- In 1988, there was one computer for every 30 students in U.S. schools. In 1999, this proportion was one computer for every five students. In 2017, 60% of schools had 1:1 technology, up from 27% in 2015.
- In 2017, approximately 77% of teachers were female. This is down from about 86% in 1979, but teaching is still a female-dominated profession.