At the 2008 annual meeting of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, then-Senator Barack Obama endorsed changing teacher compensation structures from traditional single salary schedules—where teachers are paid based only on their educational credentials and years of experience—to one reflecting the performance of individual teachers in the classroom. His mention of pay for performance elicited boos from the assembled members of an organization that eventually endorsed his candidacy for president. Proposals for performance plans have caused controversy in cities like Washington, DC, but, while it’s a worthwhile goal to more directly link individual performance to individual pay, traditional single salary schedules are likely to remain in place for some time. Some reflect what we know about teacher effectiveness, but many do not.
Research shows that teachers have steep learning curves—they become much more effective in their first few years on the job and then level off. And a great deal of research shows the link between teacher effectiveness and educational credentials to be minor or nonexistent. A district designing their salary structure based on these findings can more effectively attract and reward high-quality teachers without increasing the overall amount of money spent on compensation.
The slope of teacher salary schedules is likely to have a significant impact on the quality and character of the teacher work force in any given district. Higher starting salaries are more likely to attract high-quality candidates into the profession. A district with only small returns for experience is likely to face retention issues as teachers leave for more lucrative positions or grow frustrated because their pay increases aren’t commensurate with their increasing effectiveness in the classroom. Each of these decisions, made at the local level, helps shape a district’s teacher work force by influencing its ability to attract and retain quality teachers.
New York City is an example of a city that rewards teachers with large raises when they meet certain experience milestones (teachers earn large raises at seven, 10, 15, 20, and 22 years) and smaller or nonexistent raises in other years. Such policies are likely to distort teacher decision-making, giving teachers too little reason to stay when they are far from the “step” and too much reason to stay when they are near—a teacher in New York is unlikely to leave after 19 years, for example, because they stand to earn an 11 percent raise, more than $8,000, if they stay one additional year.
The chart below compares New York City’s current schedule to one that’s based on what research says about teacher effectiveness in general. (Scroll over the dollar signs embedded in the chart to read descriptions of the differences between the current system and the proposed schedules). The costs of these schedules are comparable, in that they generate the same total expenditures on teacher salaries, assuming the national averages of the percentage of teachers who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees and who are in various stages of experience in their careers. The schedules are in present dollars and would be adjusted annually for cost of living increases.
The proposed salary schedules begin with a relatively high starting salary in order to recruit high-quality candidates into the field. They front-load salaries so as to reward early career gains to teacher effectiveness and to provide financial rewards to the teachers most likely to leave the profession. But, unlike districts with hard plateaus, the proposed schedules reserve small bonuses from years 11-25. And, instead of large arbitrary increases before and after multiple years of stagnation, the new schedules follow a gentle, predictable curve that places no extra emphasis on any one year. Teachers who felt burned-out after year 19, for example, would feel no strong financial compulsion to stay an additional year.
Because there is little compelling evidence suggesting teachers with master’s degrees outperform their bachelor degree-holding peers, the proposed schedules eliminate the more than $5,000 in bonuses New York awards for master’s degrees. Instead, the proposed schedules give only a small bonus to teachers with master’s degrees—calculated to cover the cost of obtaining 32 graduate-level credits at the nearby Teachers College at Columbia University.
With finite resources, these choices matter. Single salary schedules will likely continue to be used in most school districts for some time. Districts should construct these schedules in a way that will attract and retain the most effective classroom teachers. To read more about the ways districts structure their teacher salary schedules and to see more cool charts, check out the full report here.
Many thanks to Abdul Kargbo for creating the interactive charts like the one you see above.