The Historical Good of Step and Lane

In an earlier post, I described the step and lane system of pay.  Step and lane, also known as the single salary schedule, is used in 96% of public school districts in the US, and covers virtually all public school teachers.

How did we get this system of pay?  And why has it endured for 100 years?1920s teachersHere is the historical context, from researchers at University of Wisconsin:

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.

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.  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. 

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.  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.

So when Step & Lane emerged in the 1920s, its design eliminated the opportunity for race and gender pay biases.  And it also provided incentives for bachelor’s level education — a rare commodity in that era.

Why has the step & lane system endured for 100 years?   There are several reasons for the resilience of the single salary structure.

  1. It is very easy to administer.  The system requires no administrative judgement; pay is formulaic and thus completely predictable; there are no pay surprises, and there is no room to ‘argue’ about anyone’s salary.  It is a frictionless pay system.
  2. It is objective and protects teachers from bias against classes of teachers (minorities, women) and also protects individuals against subjective mistreatment at the hands of
  3. It has encouraged something that used to be in short supply, but was desperately needed —  teachers with a full college education.

These features (along with rise of strong teachers unions) have helped step and lane to endure through wars, periods of social upheaval, and even through the rapid technological change of the last 30 years.  I can appreciate the role the single salary schedule played in bringing well-educated teachers into the profession, and in eliminating the widespread pay discrimination against women and minority teachers in the early 1900s.

But today we face different challenges and new goals.  We no longer have a shortage of teacher candidates with bachelor degrees.   And as a society we have come a long way in eliminating discrimination in the workplace.

Perhaps we need a pay system that is designed around today’s educational challenges and opportunities.  What should we do differently with compensation to ensure that we attract, develop, retain, and reward Great Teachers?  Is the single salary schedule really the best we can do?

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