Schedule Conflicts

As most people know, the majority of public school teachers are paid based on salary schedules. Most (but not all) contain a number of “steps” (years of experience) and “lanes” (education levels). Teachers are placed in one lane (based on their degree) and proceed up the steps as they accrue years on the job. Within most districts, these two factors determine the raises that teachers receive.

Salary schedules receive a great deal of attention in our education debates. One argument that has been making the rounds for some time is that we should attract and retain "talent" in the teaching profession by increasing starting salaries and/or the size of raises teachers receive during their first few years (when test-based productivity gains are largest). One common proposal (see here and here) for doing so is reallocating salary from the “top” of salary schedules (the salaries paid to more experienced teachers) down to the “bottom” (novice teachers’ salaries). As a highly simplified example, instead of paying starting teachers $40,000 and teachers with 15 years of experience $80,000, we could pay first-year teachers $50,000 and their experienced counterparts $70,000. This general idea is sometimes called “frontloading," as it concentrates salary expenditures at the “front” of schedules.

Now, there is a case for changes to salary schedules in many places – bargained and approved by teachers – including, perhaps, some degree of gradual frontloading (though the research in this area is underdeveloped at best). But there is a vocal group of advocates who assume an all-too-casual attitude about these changes. They seem to be operating on the mistaken assumption that salary schedules can be easily overhauled – just like that. We can drastically restructure them or just “move the money around” without problem or risk, if only unions and "bureaucrats" would get out of the way.**

Salary schedules aren’t just one-shot deals. When teachers and districts negotiate salaries, they don’t start with a blank slate. Schedules are, in many respects, evolving systems, which emerge over time as a result of continuous negotiation (and, in bargaining states, approval) by both parties.

Remember that there are literally thousands of salary schedules across the U.S., and, while most follow the step/lane format, there is tremendous variation between districts in how this format plays out (as well as in the amounts they pay). In some districts, salary schedules contain relatively few steps – sometimes 7-10 – while in others, there are as many as 40 or more (typically, schedules with more steps provide smaller raises per step).

In some places, the raises teachers receive for each step are spaced out regularly, while in other places, there are bigger raises at the beginning or end of schedules. Some districts prefer to give smaller step increases and larger cost of living raises, while others do the opposite. And so on.

These differences are in many respects “path-dependent." Once you have taken a certain “approach," it’s not always easy to alter course without benefiting some teachers at the expense of others.

For example, those who propose drastic schedule restructuring - e.g., in a district that has long used a schedule with 20 steps and $1,000 raises per step, changing the schedule to 10 steps with $2,000 raises - too often fail to consider how this would be perceived by experienced teachers, who will have “lost” a fair amount of lifetime earnings relative to the new teachers who will reach the maximum more quickly (see here).

Similarly, the people who boldly insist on eliminating the raises given for advanced degrees sometimes seem rather nonchalant about how this will affect the morale and behavior of teachers who spent years and their own money investing in their education with the understanding that they'd be rewarded for doing so.

Many people, myself included, need to keep in mind that it's not only the technical details of changes to salary systems that determines their fate. Fairness and buy-in are very important. Reforms imposed in a short-sighted, inequitable fashion may not only fail to work, but they can also increase attrition and mobility, corrupt school cultures and pollute labor/management relationships that have in many cases been built over several decades.

The same goes for any of the proposals floating around for altering "traditional" salary schedules. Many are worthy of consideration, including not only gradual frontloading, but also setting up new “lanes” for teachers who take on additional responsibilities (e.g., mentorship roles) and, perhaps, the incorporation of “performance-based” measures. But we all know that there's a long, well-documented history of failure for these programs.

They won't work unless done carefully, in a manner that is fair and respects the long-standing precedents between teachers and their districts. Let’s not lose sight of that when discussing changes to how teachers are paid.


** It's worth noting that salary schedules are the norm in both high- and low-union density states.

- Matt Di Carlo


You should have noted -- and always note when tenure and salary schedules are raised -- that these things predate teacher union contracts.