The Two Biggest Challenges in Changing How Teachers Get Paid
Being an effective teacher requires a unique blend of skill, experience, education, and collaboration. One of the challenges in translating these skills into an appropriate salary figure is that some of them are tricky to quantify.
That’s not to say that such a task is impossible, and many districts do attempt merit-based systems. But, those that do opt to tie performance to pay for teachers must be prepared for potentially negative impacts on staff morale, professional collaboration, and even possible legal troubles.
That’s why, to avoid these types of consequences (and ones that could detract from the overall learning environment), many districts opt to determine teacher salaries the traditional way: solely upon a professional’s longevity and level of education – numbers that are easily identifiable and verifiable. Salary guides are then negotiated and created using these metrics so that educators know exactly what they can expect to be paid.
This structure is notably different from the way most people outside of the education world are compensated for their work.
As such, many challenge the legitimacy and fairness of how teachers’ salaries are calculated, and, instead, support merit-based alternatives more in line with how private-sector employers determine wages and benefits. They argue that teacher performance should be the determining factor in the salaries, raises, and potential bonuses they earn.
After all, why should a successful fourth-year teacher make less than a sub-par, twenty-year veteran should?
Fair or not, the reality is that the majority of teachers in the United States are paid in accordance with some type of salary guide system. While, to outsiders, it may appear to be an unjust or counterintuitive way to assign value to an educator, there are two major reasons why the system is unlikely to change any time soon.
One of the biggest reasons teacher salary scales are still so widely used has nothing to do with teachers or their instructional quality at all. Salary guides provide school districts and their municipalities with a reasonable degree of certainty about what staffing a school will cost from year to year.
The largest percentage of the operating budgets for most school districts is the combination of teacher salaries and benefits. Therefore, the process by which those costs are determined needs to work - and it needs to do so efficiently.
Using the aforementioned metrics of a teacher’s education level and years of service provides a simple, defensible metric for salaries and pay increases. No matter the size of the school or district, every employee can be matched to a figure on a salary guide that easily identifies his or her expected salary. Additionally, the same guide can be used to establish projections for what pay raises each employee can expect in the future. Costs can be calculated accordingly.
School boards appreciate this straight-forward system. As with most bureaucratic entities, a consistent and predictable budget process is always preferable to one that is dynamic and unpredictable. Trying to create a spending plan based upon a salary scale is much more straightforward than one where, in the case of merit pay, each teacher’s individual evaluation could have an effect on the bottom line.
Another challenge facing those seeking to overhaul the way teachers are paid is the fact that teachers do not operate as independent contractors; instead, teachers work as a part of a teacher’s union.
As a unionized profession, teaching contracts are subject to collective bargaining. This means, teacher contracts (and the included salary guides) are negotiated on behalf of a union’s members as opposed to each teacher having to make his or her own individual employment deal.
This type of negotiation is not a new concept nor is exclusive to teachers. The history behind collective bargaining stretches all the way back to laws like the Railway Labor Act of 1926 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that enabled workers to unionize in an effort to:
[encourage] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection. (29 U.S.C. § 151)
Public school teachers are municipal employees and work in a field subject to state and municipal control over things like budgets, curricula, and policies. Since there is no clear and undisputed way to objectively rate teachers’ efforts, merit-based systems must use subjective means and measures to reach their outcomes.
By tying teachers’ salaries to subjective evaluations, it becomes that much easier for districts and municipalities to manipulate hirings and firings for either personal or political ends – regardless of the teacher’s actual impact on students. Unions, through collective bargaining, protect teachers from the professional vulnerability a subjective evaluation model could create.
Ultimately, unions are a key part of both negotiating for the best possible wages as well as guarding against constantly shifting political tides. For these reasons, teachers are unlikely to give up their organized labor protections, and thus, collective bargaining will likely remain part of the equation of calculating teacher pay for years to come.
In the end, tying teacher pay to salary scales remains the norm in most school districts. This is not to say that change is impossible.
However, any viable alternative will have to surpass the current system in terms of predictability and, at the same time, rely on metrics that don’t disincentivize teachers from both gaining experience and working collaboratively. Such a system will have to pass the scrutiny of the teachers’ unions and provide both improvements and assurances that surpass current salary scale model.
Sheldon Soper is a New Jersey middle school teacher with over a decade of classroom experience teaching students to read, write, and problem-solve across multiple grade levels. He holds teaching certifications in English, Social Studies, and Elementary Education as well as Bachelor's and Master's degrees in the field of education. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites. You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.