Other Deficiencies of the Single Salary Schedule

I recently wrote about the misalignment of the step and lane single salary schedule with student outcomes.    I also wrote about the historical reasons for the single salary schedule, and noted that it brought about positive change in the early 1900s.

In our current day and age, we know that attracting, rewarding, and retaining Great Teachers is critical if we want to have great schools.   In today’s post we will look at four talent challenges that school systems face.  And we see how a single salary schedule gets in the way of addressing those challenges.

Problem:  Skill Shortages

When pay is kept artificially low by a particular employer, shortages develop.  High-skill employees in that field will migrate out to jobs where the pay is not constrained.    This creates job vacancies.   Candidates seeking work will first seek out jobs with unconstrained employers.  So fewer candidates will apply to the  jobs that have artificially-low salaries.  And those that do apply (on average) will be those who did not win employment with the higher paying employer.  Over time this dynamic will either lead to a labor shortage (if employers do not compromise on the skill requirements), or employers will come to accept less-qualified applicants, thereby lowering the quality of the work force.

In the labor market for STEM and special education teachers, the single salary schedule has caused a shortage of qualified teachers across the US, and if it continues, could contribute to a reduction in the overall quality of teachers in these fields.   Surveys of school human resource officers show that this problem is real, and has been a problem for many years:

Job Vacancy by FieldFrom the chart, we can which jobs are difficult to fill.  And those jobs are in Special Ed and STEM fields.  We can also see that it is much easier to fill Elementary Ed and Social Studies positions.  If wages were higher for hard-to-fill jobs, more school of education students would select those majors, and the shortages would diminish.  Likewise, if wages were lower for Elementary Ed positions, this would signal more students to pursue concentrations in higher-demand fields like the biological or physical sciences.  Market wages send signals, that direct employees to where there is the greatest demand.

In Pennsylvania, the US Dept of Ed reports shortages in the following fields for 2013-2014:

  • English as a Second Language
  • Hearing Impaired (Pre-Kindergarten – Grade 12)
  • Mathematics (Grades 7 -12)
  • Spanish
  • Speech and Language Impaired (Pre-Kindergarten – Grade 12)
  • Special Education (Pre-Kindergarten – Grade 12)
  • Vocational Subjects

Even though these shortages are well-known, the single salary schedule prevents us from adjusting salaries for these fields to attract more college graduates, or to encourage existing teachers to ‘reskill’ and move into new, higher-demand positions.

When my company needs to hire skills that are in short supply, it offers ‘hot skill’ bonuses and higher base salaries.  In the Information Technology department, for example, we pay more for technical experts in Data Analytics, and Mobile Application Development — two hot fields in the life insurance business.  And the extra pay helps us fill the jobs more quickly so that our company can meet its business goals.

In higher education, a field that has much in common with K12 education, It is telling that our public colleges and universities pay different wages for each academic discipline, with market forces playing a significant role in determining faculty salaries.   For example, at research Universities, there are wide pay differentials for full professors, according to a recent industry survey:

Professor Salaries 2013While supply and demand of K12 teachers undoubtedly differs from PhD professors, there is no doubt that a similar spread and variation would be found across K12 disciplines if market forces were allowed to work.

Any pay system that ignores market forces will have consequences.  If pay is too low for a particular skill set, there will be a shortage or quality degradation.  If pay is too high for a skill set, there will be a surplus.  We see both of these situations in K12 job markets.

Problem:  Intra-District Shortages

A second problem, which impacts larger districts (but not UCFSD) is that single salary schedules can suppress market pay differentials between schools within the same district.  For example, some large districts cover urban and suburban areas, and therefore may have high and low-achieving schools and schools in “good” and “bad” neighborhoods.

If the working conditions are more challenging at one school, shouldn’t schools pay a premium to attract teachers to those more difficult situations?  But that can’t happen with the single salary schedule.  So what happens instead?  Experienced teachers will ‘post out’ of the ‘difficult’ schools into the ‘easier’ schools, leaving the difficult schools to hire and train the new teachers.  Given that new teachers are less effective in their first year or two on the job, this degrades the quality of education at the ‘difficult’ school even further.  This is one contributing factor to the achievement gap in low-income areas.

Inflexible salary schedules also prevent administrators from adjusting to conditions in the field and rewarding teachers for stepping up to difficult situations.  And the larger the geographic span of the school district, the more dislocation the single salary schedule introduces.  (For example, Maryland school districts span entire counties.)

Problem:  Quality of Graduate Courses

One reason why additional degrees and credit may not result in improved student achievement is that the single salary schedule ignores the quality dimension of teacher credentials.  A master’s degree obtained from a third-tier school is considered equivalent to a master’s degree obtained from the best school.  Likewise, a teacher just barely graduating from the best school is treated the same as the top student at that same school.  Effectively, our compensation system says (to use an extreme example) that a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania is worth the same as one from a third tier university.  Perhaps that is true, but I strongly doubt it.

diploma mill

Not only is the quality of coursework ignored by our pay system, but the relevance of coursework is also ignored.    If I were a 9th grade math teacher at UHS, it would make some sense to pay me more were I to accumulate additional coursework in secondary education, or mathematics.  It would make less sense to pay me more when I complete a course in School Policy, or Early Childhood Development, and even less sense if I took a course in Trends in Urban Education.  (All of these are all courses available at U Penn’s graduate school of education.)

Our collective bargaining agreement will recognize coursework for lane movements as long as it is from an accredited school and “is either in the employee’s subject area, the field of education, or it is relevant to the employee’s potential contribution to the education of children in this school district as determined by the Superintendent.”

Many of our teachers in UCF pursue relevant coursework from challenging schools.  But there are other options available which are much less rigorous and deliver a lower benefit.   Should we pay teachers more who complete challenging courses, from top schools, that are relevant to their current teaching assignment?  And pay less to those who take the easy way out?  I don’t know if that would necessarily be a good policy, but the single salary schedule will not allow us to find out.

Problem:  Retaining the Best

Not only do we want to develop great teachers, but we also want to keep them in the profession.  And the single salary schedule does have a retention incentive (pay increases with tenure).   And the pension system also has retention features, with the value of the pension increasing significantly in later years.

However, these features are standard, and apply equally to great, average, and poor teachers alike.   Thus the incentive is not selective for high performing teachers.

Research shows that when teachers leave the profession, high-performing teachers earn more in their next (non-teaching) job than low-performing teachers with the same profile.  So there is a larger economic pull away from the teaching profession for high-performers.   If we had larger economic retention incentives for high-performing teachers, this might keep them in the profession longer and thereby benefit more students.

While retention is not a big problem in the teaching profession overall, the inflexible single salary system does not allow retention incentives to be targeted to those who are the most valuable employees and who are most at-risk of leaving.

Key Takeaways:

  • The single salary schedule ignores real differences in supply and demand among teaching positions
  • The single salary schedule prevents the market from adjusting to supply more teachers for STEM and Special Education roles
  • The single salary schedule prevents administrators in diverse school districts from rewarding teachers for taking assignments in difficult schools.  This can lead to a less experienced and less effective teaching team in high-need schools. (Not an issue for us in UCFSD.)
  • The single salary schedule can decrease the quality of teachers in higher-demand positions
  • The single salary schedule does not encourage pursuit of the highest quality continuing education
  • The single salary schedule is an obstacle to retaining the best teachers in the profession