CPREConsortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Wisconsin Madisonchildren

History of Teacher Pay

There have been three major shifts in the way teachers are paid in the U.S.. Each shift was accompanied by changes in the needs of schools and the society. These past changes in teacher compensation show how compensation changes that are aligned with the strategic needs of schools and existing organizational forms can become permanent. The history of teacher compensation in the U.S. leads us to the conclusion that the time may be ripe for a fourth shift in teacher pay systems.

Phase I: "Boarding Round"
In the latter half of the 1800s, local communities designed schools to provide basic academic skills and moral education for children. Teacher compensation consisted primarily of room and board provided by the local community. The "Boarding Round" pay system was a strong incentive for teachers to maintain positive relations with community members and to maintain a high moral character. It also reflected the barter economy of the time.

Phase II: Position-based salary schedule
In the early 1900s, teacher preparation became more uniform; requiring higher levels of education, and schools began to reflect the bureaucratic organizational structures of the developing industrial cash economy. The Boarding Round system was replaced by a position-based salary system that reflected the new form of teacher work, the cash basis of the economy, and increased preservice education requirements. This system paid elementary teachers less than secondary teachers, in part due to the differences in education required for these positions, yet also paid women and minority teachers less than non-minority males, reflecting societal biases of the time. Nevertheless, the position-based salary schedule was a salary system aligned with the strategic aspects of the economy and school systems.

Phase III: Single-salary schedule
The single-salary schedule emerged early in the 20th century in response to further changes in the social and educational context. Opposition to overt discrimination and demand for greater teacher skills led to the system which paid the same salary to teachers with the same qualifications regardless of grade level taught, gender or race. The single-salary schedule did not, however, pay every teacher the same amount. Differentials were provided based on the objective measures of years of experience, educational units, and educational degrees. It paid teachers salary supplements for coaching sports, advising clubs, and coordinating activities. The bases for paying differential salary amounts were objective, measurable and not subject to administrative whim. The single-salary schedule was appropriate for the bureaucratic, hierarchically organized school of the first half of this century. Administrators were responsible for goals, objectives and school success, and teachers were responsible mainly for delivering a basic skills-focused, standardized curriculum. Teachers needed a beginning set of skills that were assessed in the process of licensure. Once in the system, they were paid more for each year of experience, a practice typical of bureaucracies and the way most workers were paid in the broader economy.

Phase IV: What's next?
In the 1990s, changes in education have led to increased skill requirements for teachers. Public demands for high standards and accountability, demands for employee involvement to facilitate improved organizational performance, and an increasingly diverse student population require teachers to develop and maintain high levels of professional instructional skills, as well as management and leadership roles within schools. Despite its advantages (fairness, equity, and ease of administration), the single salary schedule does not focus on results and does not provide incentives for long term career development of employees, linked to the knowledge and skills needed for today's schools.

These changes in schools and society suggest the potential for another wave of teacher compensation reform, with a focus on accountability and professional development. The Teacher Compensation Project is exploring ways in which knowledge and skill-based pay and school-based performance awards may be used to augment the single salary schedule to better serve these needs.

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. Click here for information on how to order a copy of the book. Check the bibliography for more resources and publications on this topic.