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Teacher Salary Schedules Were Meant to Equalize Pay. Do They Have the Opposite Effect?

When teacher salary schedules first came into vogue in the early 20th century, they were designed to equalize wages among public school teachers across race, ethnicity, and gender. Today, teachers' unions still tend to support these schedules, typically printed in a grid format that show how much a teacher earns, with increases for each year the teacher has worked in the district and for higher levels of education.

But in an attempt to make wages fair and transparent, are salary schedules creating other types of inequities? That's the case made by a provocative new report from the Brookings Institution. 

It argues that, in continuing to pay premiums for experience and educational attainment, teacher salaries are potentially making it harder to recruit and hold onto teachers of color and young teachers, despite concerns about the lack of diversity in the teaching force and high rates of teacher turnover. 

Here are some takeaways:

Salary schedules were put into place to foster wage equality.

At one time, teacher salaries showed a lot of inequities, with high school teachers and white males getting paid more than other teachers. The salary schedule came about to combat such disparities. States or districts generally set schedules to allow for salary increases over years and for the accumulation of education credits. In the 2011-12 school year, 89 percent of public school districts paid teachers according to salary schedules.

But the same salary schedule system has created unexpected wage inequalities.

Teachers' salary schedules are so rigid in their reliance on education attainment and experience to determine pay increases that they inadvertently end up creating pay gaps between teachers in wealthy areas and those who teach in poor areas, the analysis argues. For example, suburban and wealthy districts tend to employ more experienced teachers, and those teachers are being compensated for that experience. Potentially, that means that schools with higher needs, where turnover is higher, are getting inexperienced—and less highly paid teachers.

"Salary schedules are resistant to paying teachers differently for working in high-needs school settings," Michael Hansen, a co-author of the report, told Education Week. Yet teachers of color often work in these settings, he said. "So perhaps if we actually paid them for working in high-needs schools, implicitly that is a bonus that disproportionately benefits minority teachers and would disproportionately increase their income. That would be a way to bring more people of color into the profession."

Wage disparities among schools will be hard to erase as long as salary schedules continue to base pay bumps on education attainment and experience. 

Research since the late 1990s has shown that earning a master's degree does not necessarily translate into growth in student achievement. Experience does matter, but there is disagreement over how much teachers improve over time. (Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week about recent studies that challenge the notion that teachers improve over their first three years in the classroom and then plateau thereafter.)

But there's one point, said Hansen, over which there is no dispute: Teachers improve the most at the beginning of their careers.  With that in mind, does it make sense to pay veteran teachers more for their years of experience? That is a question that Hansen said warrants further study.

Could pay instead be targeted for working in high-needs schools and teaching in-demand subjects like math and science? 

There is evidence, Hansen argues, that paying teachers more for working in high-needs schools yields results. "So we're not paying all teachers $600 or more for master's degrees; instead, we're paying a certain smaller subset of teachers a few thousand more to work in targeted areas that we need," he said.

According to Hansen, school districts that have tried this have not offered large enough incentives to keep teachers in high-needs fields and schools. An additional $500 to $2,000 won't do the trick, but rewards in excess of 15 to 20 percent of a teacher's pay would, studies estimate. Hansen pointed to the federally financed "Talent Transfer Initiative," which offered top teachers a $20,000 bonus to transfer to the lowest-performing schools in the district.

"By and large it worked," said Hansen. "Teachers who transferred still performed at a high level in their new school which was a question that needed answering. Does a great teacher in an affluent area translate into a great teacher in a less affluent area?" The experiment lasted two years, and teachers stayed after it ended, even without the bonus, according to Hansen. But Sawchuk points out in this Education Week article that there is a catch: Getting teachers to agree to change schools is tough, even with a $20,000 financial incentive.

Teachers' unions take issue with these ideas. The National Education Association opposes incentive pay for hard-to-recruit positions or for teaching in high-needs schools, for instance, though some districts and local unions have experimented with these recruitment tools. Instead, NEA advocates for higher pay across the profession, arguing that low teacher pay and inadequate school funding overall lead to difficulties in recruiting highly qualified teachers to high-needs schools and convincing them to stay put. 

It's impossible to consider salary without also thinking about pension systems. 

Most teachers are paid under defined-benefit pension systems. Benefits in those systems accrue unevenly so that they tend to be worth more near the end of a teacher's career. Unions say that's good, because it encourages teachers to stay in the profession for the long haul. 

But today's young millennial teachers, by and large, don't benefit from this system, as they tend to be more mobile, in terms of both geography and occupational choice. A teacher of 10 years who moves with a spouse to another state could lose significant pension wealth, and would have been better off had the district instead contributed to a 401(k) on her behalf, according to Hansen. Liana Loewus writes about the pay gap that pensions create in this Teacher Beat blog post.

"Pension systems are known to be unequal," Hansen said. "They will only become more inequitable as more minorities and young people enter the workforce. So whenever we're talking about changing pension systems, we should be talking about how we can change the way we pay teachers in order to make the pension system more solvent in the future. What are things we can do with how we are paying teachers that would enable districts to allocate funds more equitably across disadvantaged versus advantaged schools?"

On the surface, salary schedules appear to be fair. All teachers climb the pay ladder based on criteria that cannot be disputed: a master's degree and years of experience. Even Hansen argued the upsides to such a system: The pay bumps based on education and experience can entice teachers to stay in the profession, providing much needed stability to the workforce.

But he also maintained that there is no evidence that the pay schedule as it stands is a good use of money. His hope in the end is that this latest study will prompt a conversation about reworking pay schedules so that they are in the best interest of both the teachers and the kids they teach.

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