Teacher salary schedules: More equitable but are they fair?

Most American public school teachers are paid according to salary schedules that take into account their years of experience and degrees earned. This compensation approach has been criticized because it doesn’t anchor teacher pay to instructional effectiveness or other factors that merit consideration (e.g., specializing in harder-to-staff fields or working in higher-need schools). Instead, teacher pay depends on factors that research suggests are not closely tied to student achievement. Now a new study by Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero of the Brookings Institution takes a different look at teacher salary schedules, this time through the lens of equitable pay and patterns of school funding.

In terms of wage distribution, the analysts find that public school teacher pay is more equitable relative to other occupations. Using the Theil Index—a measure of equity—they find that teacher pay is more evenly distributed than for doctors or lawyers and just slightly more equitable than for nurses or social workers. This is not surprising, as salary schedules tend to fit teacher pay within a relatively narrow range; for instance, salaries for Columbus educators range from about $40,000 to $90,000. Within the teaching profession, the pay differences are explained mainly by experience and degrees—predictable given the design of salary schedules—and the state in which a teacher works.

This leads the analysts to examine the state-by-state variation in wage equity among teachers. They ask: Is there a correlation between states with more “regressive” funding systems—wealthier districts funded at higher levels—and less equitable teacher pay? The theory is that regressive systems might allow affluent districts to put their educators on higher pay schedules relative to poorer ones. This, in turn, would create greater pay inequity among teachers within that state. Indeed, when they crunch the numbers, the analysts uncover a modest relationship between regressive funding and less equitable teacher pay, as expected. However, while Ohio has one of the least regressive funding systems, its teacher pay equity is about average nationally—a bit of an outlier in their analysis.

Not surprisingly, this analysis finds that lockstep salary schedules generally create a more even pay distribution for teachers. But that doesn’t mean it’s an evenhanded approach for all. Some teachers—especially younger ones who must wait years for more generous pay—may not view the salary schedule as particularly fair. It’s also possible that teachers in tough, high-poverty schools might not see their salaries as equitable when comparing their wages to those paid in upper middle-class suburbs. This has implications, particularly for high-poverty schools: Without the flexibility to differentiate pay, they struggle to retain quality teachers—particularly younger ones—who are apt to move to wealthier districts or out of the profession.

Above all, we should ask whether it’s fair to students and parents to award automatic pay raises—as salary schedules do—to ineffective or chronically absent teachers just the same as high-performing educators. Ohio law (and those in several other states) requires districts to adopt rigid salary schedules based on years of service and degrees earned. If legislators decide to put the interests of students first, they would end this outdated compensation practice that few other employers or professions use today. Instead, they should give educational leaders the flexibility to allocate pay in a way that helps them best meet the needs of students and local communities, aiming for equity for students rather than adults.

Source: Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero, “Scrutinizing equal pay for equal work among teachers,” Brookings Institution (2017).

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.