Envisioning a better way to pay teachers

Teaching is the only profession that has a single salary schedule for what is hoped to be a lifelong career; where salary growth is based solely on career longevity without regard for distinctions in knowledge, skills, or roles and responsibilities.
There are better ways to pay our teachers—with or without pay for performance—by paying more for what matters most. Conversations about teacher pay reform often tout the need to pay for performance, while traditionalists argue that all we need is to raise teacher salaries across the board. Neither of these ideas will be enough to address the fundamental imbalance between what we need for the future versus how we continue to pay our teachers.

The need is urgent

While we continue to wait for plentiful funding for our public schools and the perfect evaluation model, our teachers are walking away from the game. The Texas student population has grown by nearly 10 percent over five years and the number of new teachers becoming certified dropped by 25 percent during the same period. Add the declining teacher production to the estimated 40 to 50 percent of new teachers that drop out within five years and the need for change becomes urgent. Who will teach our children? What will we have to offer to make teaching a viable career choice for college-bound students?

Texas Initial Teaching Certificates, All Sources, 
2007 to 2013

Source: Texas Education Agency

The answers to those questions must include a different pay strategy that values what we need in our teaching workforce and accepts the realities of market supply and demand. And that strategy, by definition, means giving up the antiquated salary schedule tied to years of service. Young people today look at a traditional teacher salary schedule and see a system that will offer them nothing but a long-winded schedule of one or two percent pay raises for 30 or 40 years and no opportunity to advance their career as a teacher.

Envisioning a better way

There are at least five pay strategies that we can and should use to improve the way we pay our teachers. These strategies could develop teaching as a career opportunity while improving teacher talent.     
1. Advance teacher pay sooner. Most of the research on teacher development and experience concludes that a significant portion of a teacher’s development occurs early on, in the first five years; or, at most, 10 years. After that, the differences in teaching talent correlate most strongly with intangible personal factors like passion, compassion, content knowledge, and effort. And yet we persist in dragging out the time it takes for new teachers to earn a decent salary. Salary step schedules widen the pay gap for teachers by experience far beyond any rational correlation.
Other professionals reach their peak earning potential at a younger age than teachers. After that point, salaries advance more slowly, generally related to cost-of-living or individual performance. Why don’t we intentionally advance teacher salaries to the market average teacher salary by the time they are fully developed and effective?
The study Smart Money by the National Center for Teacher Quality showed that doctors and lawyers typically reach their peak earning potential by age 42 and then level off. Teachers do not reach their peak earnings until age 55. A similar study by The New Teacher Project compared the salary growth trajectory between biologists and biology teachers in Chicago. Results showed that the sharpest growth in income for the biologists occurred between two and six years of experience, while teachers had no period of accelerated salary growth. Teacher pay merely plods along a fixed step schedule for each year of service.
Other base pay systems are designed to move most employees to a salary level that equates to the average pay in the external job market; i.e. the “market rate” for the job. A model that would advance teacher pay to market value in the time it takes to develop a fully effective teacher is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Advancing Pay to Market in Five Years

Beginning salary $40,000
Year 1 $42,000
Year 2 $44,000
Year 3 $46,000
Year 4 $48,000
Year 5 $50,000

Considering the fact that half of all new teachers drop out of the profession within five years and teachers can be equally effective after five years, the argument to advance teacher pay sooner makes more sense.
2. Pay more for the job and less for longevity. A market pay strategy defines job value as the going rate that other employers pay for similar work. Some employees may be paid more or less than the market rate for experience, but only within a range of 10 to 15 percent. The concept of equal pay for equal work means all employees are paid a fair salary for what they do.
By contrast, the difference between a teacher salary schedule based on longevity and a market pay strategy is that salary schedules give more weight to an employee’s years of service than to the value of the work they are doing. A market pay strategy will compress the range of pay for a job while longevity schedules spread the pay range. More teachers would fare better with a market-based pay strategy.  

3. Create career pathways for teachers. There is plenty that needs to be done to coach, mentor, and evaluate teachers better than most schools do today. Principals cannot do this work alone. Career pathways would provide greater earning opportunity for talented teachers who choose to take on greater responsibilities and teaching challenges, while continuing to work directly with students and teachers.
Developing teacher leaders with new roles and higher pay ranges could also help address the growing principal attrition rate, which is alarming. About one quarter of all principals leave their school at the end of the year and 50 percent of new principals leave the profession by their third year. The growth in the job demands of principals is unlikely to ease up, so districts need to find other capable leaders to assist.  
Figure 3 shows an illustration of how a teacher career pathway could be designed to combine teaching talent with leadership and higher salary opportunity. We must create new opportunity for leadership growth and development to make teaching a more viable lifelong career for talented teachers.

Teacher Career Pathway

Teacher Coach/Evaluator Works with teachers to observe and evaluate $65,000 to $75,000
Master Teacher Highly effective; model teacher; additional leadership roles $60,000 to $70,000
Consulting Teacher Content expert; additional leadership roles $55,000 to $60,000
Professional Teacher Fully effective; competitive market pay range $50,000 to $55,000
Developing Teacher Three to five years $45,000 to $50,000

4. Pay STEM teachers more. Does an elementary PE teacher really have the same market value as a high school algebra teacher? We may feel emotionally that all teachers have the same value, but their knowledge base certainly does not have the same value in the job market.
College graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math are worth a whole lot more in the job market than we give credit to in the way we pay teachers. That has led to the critical and growing shortage of qualified STEM teachers in our public schools. In Texas, we had 2,200 fewer teachers earning STEM certificates in 2013 than we had in 2008, all while student growth demands more teachers. More districts have begun to pay stipends for STEM teachers, but the average stipend is still only $2,500, about five percent of the average teacher’s salary. It is not enough.
The following chart shows the real difference in earnings for STEM majors who choose occupations other than teaching.

A sampling of six different STEM career fields compared to Texas teachers showed average starting pay 43 percent higher and mid-career (15 years of experience) salaries more than 200 percent higher than teaching. Granted, teachers are not in it for the money. But with income opportunities this disparate and our growing shortage of STEM teachers, it makes sense to recognize the difference in market value of a STEM degree and pay those teachers on a higher pay range. Perhaps if people could see the higher pay opportunity in a STEM teaching career, we could attract more teachers or other career professionals to pursue STEM teaching certificates.
5. Reward our most talented teachers more. Of all the ideas put forth to reform the way we pay teachers, pay for performance is certainly the most controversial. But no discussion is complete without considering pay for performance because all teachers are not equally dedicated or talented. The added value of a highly effective teacher cannot be overstated. Research has shown that teachers in the top 20 percent of performance generate five to six more months of student learning each year than low-performing teachers. Our best teachers should earn greater rewards.
While we debate the best methods to evaluate teaching, we continue to make progress toward a better way to gauge teacher effectiveness. What is irrefutable is the fact that better evaluation of teachers will require more time spent with teachers, more and better trained evaluators, and more rigorous standards, including consideration of student growth measures. And teacher evaluation discussions bring us back around to the need for career pathways for teacher leaders.  
The time is coming soon when we will have better tools to identify our most effective teachers. When that time comes, will we continue to give “across-the-board” pay raises to all? Or will we use our pay raise budgets to advance the salaries of our best teachers faster? Most performance pay systems for teachers today use bonuses because most are still funded by grants. But the ultimate goal to reward and retain excellent teachers calls for a sustainable model that will accelerate salary growth for the most talented.

The next generation 

What will the next generation of teachers be like? Will we have enough? Will they have the knowledge and skills they need to prepare the next generation of students? Will public schools be able to compete with more nonpublic schools for the best teachers? The world is changing and the answers lie in our ability to change and adapt accordingly. The way that we pay our young teachers today and future teachers tomorrow will impact who joins and who stays in teaching for public schools.
Our teacher compensation strategies need to be part of that adaptation. By advancing pay for developing teachers sooner; by employing market pay strategies that value work over longevity; by recognizing the higher market value of STEM teachers; by creating more career pathways for talented teacher leaders; and by accelerating salary growth for our best teachers, perhaps we can turn the tide and attract a new generation of the teachers we need.