Although teacher pay varies by state and by school district, virtually all public schools in the U.S. employ a rigid salary grid to determine the teacher salaries paid in a specific district. This single, unified salary schedule recognizes only years of service and amount of education as inputs in determining the pay of individual teachers. It treats all degrees as equivalent, regardless of where they were earned or in what subject, and it takes no account of a teacher’s effect on student achievement or the grade level taught.
The salary schedule is simply a grid of rows and columns, with the rows down the side being increasing years of service, called “steps,” and the columns across the top being increasing education credentials–bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate, with intermediate steps to recognize the accumulation of continuing education credits from professional development.
A typical teacher salary schedule is shown in Table 1, which is the 2002-2003 schedule for a K-8 school district in suburban Cook County, Illinois. Table 2 shows all the salaries in the grid indexed to the starting salary in step 1 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree.
A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree would start at the salary provided in step 1 under BA, or $32,722 for the nine-month school year, including a 4 percent contribution to the Teachers Retirement System. In the second year, the teacher would move into step 2 and be paid a salary of $33,357, or 1.019 times the starting salary.
As additional years of service are accumulated, the teacher moves into higher and higher steps, each of which brings an automatic annual pay increase of approximately 3 percent. However, for a teacher with just a bachelor’s degree, this particular district’s salary schedule caps teacher pay in step 12 to 1.373 times the starting salary, or $44,916 per school year.
If the teacher earns a master’s degree by the 12th year of service, that added education credential shifts the teacher to another salary step ladder with higher pay. With a master’s degree instead of a bachelor’s degree, a teacher in step 12 would be paid 1.564 times the starting salary instead of 1.373 times, or $51,192 rather than $44,916. The other benefit of having the master’s degree is that salary step increases are no longer capped in year 12, but continue to increase to $69,859 in the 25th year of service, or 2.135 times the starting salary.
If the teacher subsequently earns another 30 education credits beyond the master’s degree, this again shifts the teacher to another salary step ladder with even higher pay. The added credential boosts the teacher’s pay in step 12 to $53,238, or 1.627 times the starting salary. After 25 years of service, the teacher’s pay would increase to $79,318, or 2.424 times the starting salary.
The grid makes teacher salary administration quite simple: A teacher’s pay is not a matter of merit but simply a matter of where the teacher is in the grid. Budget projections are quite simple, too, since they involve simply adding up what the grid says the existing teaching staff will be paid in each of the next few years. It’s also simple to compute the cost of raising starting salaries, since all salaries must be raised by the same percentage as the starting salary.
However, as University of Idaho economics professor John T. Wenders points out, the use of a unified salary schedule to determine the pay of teachers–regardless of how well or what they teach–has a number of serious disincentive effects. The most important effect is on teacher quality.
“Dolts get paid the same as superior teachers, and PE teachers are paid the same as physics teachers,” says Wenders.
The result of this one-size-fits-all pay structure, he points out, is an artificial shortage of math and science teachers, whose expertise is in demand in the overall economy. It also results in a surplus of phys ed and social science teachers, who often end up teaching math and science. Not surprisingly, the performance of U.S. students in math and science is among the lowest in the world.
Research on teacher quality, notes Wenders, shows student performance is overwhelmingly a function of three factors:
- teacher cognitive ability, or brains;
- experience for the first few years of teaching; and,
- at the secondary level, possession of a master’s degree in one’s teaching subject.
Rather than rewarding teacher quality, the salary grid simply rewards teacher experience and education–in effect, telling teachers not to be concerned about student performance but to acquire additional educational credits for higher pay.
“One could not consciously design a policy with worse incentives for attracting and keeping good talent and performance,” concludes Wenders.
He suggests the salary grid remains popular for three reasons:
- For teachers, the grid provides automatic annual salary increases with no performance reviews, no salary negotiations, and no newspaper headlines reporting increased teacher pay;
- For union leaders and school administrators, the grid is easy to administer and relieves them of the burden of justifying salary differentials based on merit and subject taught;
- For school boards, the grid allows them to give almost all teachers automatic annual salary increases out of sight of the public and the media.
“Unlike in the marketplace,” notes Wenders, “the taxpayers who are paying the bill, and the parents whose children are being educated, are out of this loop.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
|Example of a K-8 Teacher Salary Schedule
Table 1: 2002-03 Salary Grid for a Suburban Illinois School District
|Example of a K-8 Teacher Salary Schedule
Table 2: Salary Index
For more information …
Further details of the teachers’s salary grid are available from John T. Wenders’ 2002 article, “The Economic Effects of the Teachers’ Unified Salary Schedule,” in Government Union Review, Volume 20 Number 3, available online at http://www.psrf.org/gur/gur20.3wenders.jsp.