The Relationship Between Teacher Salaries And Teacher Salary Schedules

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has released a brief report on teacher salary schedules since the recession.

NCTQ looks at 41 of the 50 largest districts in the U.S. (i.e., all but nine responded to the survey). Between 2008-09 and 2011-12, four out of five of these districts froze pay at least once. As would be expected, districts did so in different ways – sometimes by freezing step increases (or awarding them without associated raises), sometimes via lower (or no) cost of living adjustments, etc. It’s compelling evidence that public school teachers, like most U.S. workers, have felt the pain from the recession. This is useful information (also check out NCTQ’s TR3 database, a terrific resource).

There are, however, a couple of points worth mentioning about salary schedules, which may seem picky (or even obvious), but they do bear on the data presented in this report.

NCTQ (properly) calculates within-lane schedule raises as a function of two “components”: A salary increase from experience “increments” (teachers move up a step on the scale); and cost of living adjustments, or COLAs (typically, the entire salary schedule increases by a percentage every year).

In the report, these raises seem to be averaged across all the steps on the schedule for each district, which NCTQ calls the “average annual teacher raise." They even compare the “average teacher raise” with the increase in median earnings among other occupations during this time period.*

There is, however, a very important distinction between the “average teacher raise” and the average raise on a given salary schedule. The basic issue here is that teachers are not distributed equally across the steps on the salary schedule. Or, put differently, each step does not "contain" the same number of teachers.**

For example, most basically, it is not uncommon for districts to have a fairly large proportion of teachers on the “top step” of the schedule (for their particular degree, or “lane”), particularly in districts in which there are fewer steps on the salary schedule - i.e., teachers reach the top step more quickly. These teachers do not receive step increases anymore, only COLAs (though some districts also grant "longevity" raises at points after teachers reach the top step). In these districts, the “average raise” may to some extent overstate how much of an increase teachers are actually getting.

Similarly, the raises for experience might be small at first and get progressively larger as one moves up the steps, or vice-versa. To the degree teachers are clustered in one “end” of the schedule rather than the other (or in one lane, if the lanes vary as well), the “average annual teacher raise” may be sending misleading information about what’s going on with the typical teacher's pay in any given district. In other words, if the biggest raises occur in the later steps, and most teachers are located in the later steps, they are actually getting larger raises than the schedule average would suggest.

Finally, one should use caution in making inter-district comparisons. For instance, the 41 districts are ranked in terms of the “average teacher raise” they gave between 2008-09 and 2011-12. Some of them were negative, a few close to zero, while most were positive but rather small.

Even if one ignores the aforementioned issue of the distribution of teachers by experience (and it’s of course relevant here too), schedules vary widely in the number of steps they contain. In some districts, teachers reach the top step after just 7-10 years, whereas in others, it can take as long as 25 years or more. As a rule, schedules with fewer steps will tend to give larger proportional raises. It is therefore problematic to compare districts in terms of the “average schedule raise” without accounting for differences in the number of steps.

Overall, salary schedules transmit a great deal of information of how much teachers can earn in a given district, but you need to be a little more careful about conclusions regarding how much they do earn, on average. To be clear, there's not much NCTQ could have done to address the issues discussed above, since it's difficult to get data on the distribution of teachers across steps and lanes. But they are important to keep in mind.

That said, this report is useful, and it’s more than appropriate to conclude, based on the data, that teachers’ raises slowed down during these years, at least in these 41 districts.

- Matt Di Carlo


* This general interpretation of the results was also repeated in the New York Times, among other places.

** As another way to think about this, let’s say you calculated the average of all the amounts, or “cells” (step/lane combinations), in a salary schedule. You wouldn’t call this the “average teacher salary” in the district, because some of those cells contain many teachers (e.g., top step of MA lane), whereas a bunch contain few or even none.


NOTE TO READERS: This post originally stated that the NCTQ report focused on data between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 school years. The correct years are actually 2007-08 to 2011-12. My apologies for the error.