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Interactive graphic: Average teacher salaries nationwide since 1970

The discussion on teacher compensation, including pensions and pension reform here in Chicago, is never not a heated topic.

Jon Boeckenstedt, an associate vice president at DePaul University and self-described data visualization wonk, just opened up a gas can full of flame fanning with a blog post looking at historic averages on teacher pay — nominal and adjusted — since 1970.

Boeckenstedt, who normally sticks to higher education topics, blogged at Higher Ed Data Stories using 2013 National Center for Education Statistics numbers – the original table is here – that mapping out the history of public school teacher pay does show connection to higher education numbers. You can download the code for his Tableau map here to work your own manipulation efforts:

Learn About TableauBoeckenstedt is careful to point out he’s not choosing a side on this data visualization, though that hardly matters as numerous side have been ascribed to him anyway. And while he doesn’t claim this is anything but a map of raw data, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s based on average. Specifically, state averages. Obviously large metro areas, like Chicago, will skew state averages in teacher salary numbers.

He does point out, though, in an interview with London’s Daily Mail that there are a multitude of factors that play into the numbers he presents, though those criteria are not explicitly broken down:

‘The range is certainly surprising but the fact they differ so much by states isn’t,” Boeckenstedt said.

He said policies had a significant impact on pay levels from one part of the country to another, as well as competition, and the hefty cost of living in metropolitan versus rural areas.

“Some states are right to work states, others are heavily unionized and then obviously states like New York have dramatically higher costs of living,” he said. “In New York, the vast majority of schools will be in metropolitan areas so that will drive pay up. And that’s the same in California.”

The Sun-Times’ 2012 database of teacher pay statewide can help to add some context to the inequities inherent in a statewide salary average, though even that data is called into question, depending on whom you ask. The National Education Association, for instance, put out a list of average teacher salaries for 2011-2012 that shows Illinois being about $20,000 less in average than the NCES data Boeckenstedt presented, though the NEA chart offers far less information in the data background and collection process.

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Board of Education has its own numbers, detailed in the 2012-13 teacher salary study. Scanning the minimum salaries – by experience, education level and location – shows the dramatic discrepancy between Chicago and other state districts:

Illinois State Board of Education 2012-13 teacher salary study

The debate will continue to rage, especially as the pension fight escalates in Chicago. But the numbers do put some of the discussion in perspective.

In a quick phone conversation Tuesday afternoon with Boeckenstedt, he underscored that he has no political dog in this fight and his agenda was only to visualize some data he stumbled across and found interesting in its relation to higher education discussions.

“I had no idea I would get this reaction,” he said, referring to an outpouring of comments on his blog and via social media simultaneously accusing him of attacking high teacher salaries and defending higher pay for teachers. As he points out on his other blog, sometimes a data visualization is just a data visualization:

Lessons learned, internalized, and acted upon. Stick to higher education.

And for those of you still reading, I had no political agenda at all; I simply thought the data was interesting, and that it would make a good visualization.

[h/t The Washington Post]