Teacher Pensions Blog

When most people think about how teachers enter the profession, they might think of what could be called a traditional route--student teaching during college, followed by a full-time teaching job beginning at 22 or 23 years old. 

While this is still the typical path into teaching, only about 55 percent of incoming teachers in American public schools start out this way. Twenty percent enter in their late 20s, 16 percent enter in their 30s, and the remaining 9 percent enter after age 40. These data come from a representative sample of American public school teachers surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics in the 2011-12 school year. 

Still, these national data hide quite a bit of variation by state. At one end, Kansas and Iowa teachers are much more likely to take the "traditional" path. In both those states, more than 70 percent of teachers begin their careers by age 25, and more than 85 percent enter the profession at some point in their 20s. 

In contrast, states like California and New Mexico have very different patterns. Less than 40 percent of teachers in these states enter the profession by age 25. In fact, New Mexico has the highest percentage of teachers who begin their careers after the age of 40, at 17.6 percent of their teachers. 

 Age when first started teaching
National Average55.0%19.9%8.8%7.0%9.3%
  New Mexico33.7%23.4%10.9%14.5%17.6%
  Rhode Island43.1%24.7%12.0%7.9%*12.2%
  New Hampshire52.5%16.5%11.5%8.3%11.3%
  North Carolina55.2%16.6%9.5%9.3%9.4%
  West Virginia55.7%17.2%9.4%8.4%9.4%
  New York56.3%19.2%9.0%6.4%9.1%
  District of Columbia56.9%19.7%8.5%*4.9%*10.0%*
  New Jersey58.4%19.8%6.1%6.9%8.8%
  South Carolina63.4%16.8%8.7%5.0%6.2%
  South Dakota69.0%17.5%5.9%*3.8%*3.8%*
  North Dakota69.7%15.4%7.2%*3.5%4.2%*

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), Public Teachers Data File 2011-12

*Represents small sample size, interpret with caution 

This question may be interesting in its own right way, but the answers have financial implications for teachers. Because teacher pension formulas are based on a teacher's salary in the last year  they taught, regardless of when that happened to be, those formulas offer greater rewards for late-career service than than they do for the same years performed earlier in the teacher's career. So, for example, the same pension formula would be more beneficial for the typical teacher in California or New Mexico than in Iowa or Kansas, simply because California and New Mexico teachers are already closer to retiring. (See here for a longer explanation with examples for teachers of various ages.) 

Teachers who start at younger ages do have the potential to eventually earn larger pensions by the time they retire, but, because they have more years to go, they're also more likely to leave before then. Younger teachers also face different and more difficult calculations about what to do with their pension. For a 35-year-old with 10 years of service who decides to leave the profession, it may make sense to cash out their contributions and roll over that money into an interest-bearing investment account. For someone closer to retirement, the pension may be a better deal. 

From a public policy standpoint, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to prioritize some teachers over others. But that's exactly what teacher pensions do.