Single Salary ScheduleIn general, most teachers in the United States are paid according to a single salary schedule that provides salary increments according to a teacher's years of experience and number of college/university units and degrees. This teacher salary schedule was first implemented in several big city districts in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The basic concept has not changed much over the course of the twentieth century.
Equitable pay: the underlying principle of the single salary schedule
The single salary schedule does not mean that all teachers earn the same salary. Individual teacher salaries vary according to specific attributes of individual teachers. Teachers with more years of experience have larger salaries, as do teachers with more education attainment. Teachers also are paid more for additional jobs; e.g., coaches earn a salary supplement, as do advisors of clubs and other co-curricular activities often earn a salary increment. But critical to the success of the single salary schedule is that the basis for paying teachers different amounts, i.e., years of experience, education units and different jobs, are objective, measurable, and not subject to administrative discretion.
The mechanics of a typical single salary schedule
A sample salary schedule shows the major features of the pay schedule for a typical school district for the 1998-99 school year. In this example, the beginning salary for a new teacher with a Bachelor's degree and no prior teaching experience was $27,628. That was about 79% of the beginning salary for all college graduates with a liberal arts degree who entered the workforce in that year.
Sample teacher salary schedule, 1998-99 school year
The maximum salary in this example $52,990, about 1.9 times the beginning salary. Assuming this type of salary structure would remain in place for a teacher's career, the most a teacher in this district could expect to be paid in base salary would be just less than double their beginning salary. However, this salary doubling would occur only after working at least 17 years and investing in substantial graduate training, including obtaining a doctorate.
Teacher salaries increase gradually over many years. In this example, the first 13 years a teacher would automatically receive a salary increment of varying size each year without earning any additional credits. These increases typically are called seniority step or years of experience step increases. In this example, the value of the step increases range from a low of 1.31% from Step 1 to 2, and a high of 8% from step 12 to step 13. In this example, after the 13th year, the automatic annual salary increments stop and are replaced by a "longevity" increment that takes four years to earn, i.e., the next step after 13 is 17. (Note, however, that some schedules provide annual step increases to the top of the schedule.) In this example, if a teacher at step 13 in that lane did not obtain any additional degrees or educational units, she or he could go four years without a salary increase, other than if the entire pay structure were adjusted.
The example does not show the placement of an experienced teacher who is new to the district. Although the procedure is changing in some districts, the practice has been to limit an experienced teacher who moves to a new district to a salary that credits no more than 4-6 years of experience and often even less. This might not cause serious salary disruption for a relatively new teacher, but a teacher with more experience who moved to a new district could not only experience a salary setback, but also might never reach the highest salary step before retirement regardless of their professional expertise. Many teachers do not stay in one district their entire career, so this type of salary setback or limitation is a real situation for many teachers.
The example also shows that earning advanced credits and degrees also produce salary increases. Typically, both the dollar amount of an increase and the percentage increase for these education credits rises with the years of experience. For example, in this example, a teacher with a Master's Degree at step one would earn $3505 more than the Bachelor's Degree rate, an increase of 12.7%. At step six, movement from the Bachelor's degree lane to the Master's Degree lane would result in a $3682 (12%) increase. Finally, at step 17, the increase over the comparable Bachelor's Degree rate would be $7653, or 19.6%. These increases would be added to a teacher's base salary and thus would be earned for every year after the Master's Degree was earned. Thus, there is a clear incentive for a teacher to obtain advanced degrees and additional educational units from a higher education institution (or if allowed, continuing education units granted for participation in other professional development activities), since step increases alone do not provide the kind of significant pay increases that typically are associated with movement from one lane to another.
If a teacher earned a Master's Degree by the thirteenth year of teaching, his or her salary would be about 67% above the starting salary. If the teacher did not earn any more degrees or take any more education credits, he or she would then earn just 10 percent more (the longevity increases) the rest of his or her career, for a final salary only 69% above their beginning salary.
A doctorate can push the maximum earning numbers a bit higher, although not all schedules include a doctorate lane. In the example, a doctorate within the first thirteen years of teaching would produce a salary of $52,136, or 89% above the beginning salary, which could rise by just another $627 over the next four years of experience to a maximum of $52,990.
Some general points about teacher salaries
This example should be used only to illustrate the basic principles of the single salary schedule. It does not include extra salary increments for additional jobs such as coaching a sport, or advising a team or other extracurricular activity. Salary schedules around the country vary from the one shown, with both lower and higher salaries at different points in the steps and lanes matrix, as well as greater or fewer steps and lanes. Nevertheless, it is a good example of how most teachers are paid.
Recent data show that teachers tend to start with a salary about 75% that of college graduates with liberal arts degrees and even less than the beginning salary of all college graduates. In some high-demand areas, such as mathematics or science, the beginning teacher salary can be less than two-thirds that of the related area. A teacher can at most double his or her salary, and only with substantial graduate training and after an extended time period, often spanning one's entire teaching career. A teacher can expect to "top out" on annual increments within the first 15 years of teaching. This means that for people who begin teacher in their early 20s, by their mid- to late-30s, no more annual increases can be expected. Regardless of when the "topping out" happens, there are limitations to how long they will receive extra pay for more years of experience. In short, the typical teacher has modest earning power that is largely dependent on staying in the same district for one's entire teaching career and receiving multiple advanced degrees. Although other professions such as engineers, accountants, doctors, or lawyers, may have continuing education requirements, salary increases in those professions typically are not tied to the acquisition of additional degrees or coursework..
Finally, the current education system does make larger salaries available to teachers, but only for those leaving teaching and entering administrative jobs. Many teachers see movement to an administrative position such as assistant principal, principal, central office supervisor, or numerous other out-of-classroom jobs as the fastest and surest way to receive a pay increase, especially in places where the salary schedule provides larger increases for more senior staff. Except for recent salary increases for earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Practice, teachers with a greater array of professional expertise do not earn more than those with less skills and competencies, and only in rare circumstances are teachers, who provide the most crucial direct service to students -- instruction -- able to earn more than individuals who do not work in the classroom.
An expanded version of this information can be found in Allan Odden & Carolyn Kelley's Paying Teachers for What They Know and Do: New and Smarter Compensation Strategies to Improve Schools.