Teacher Pay and 21st-Century School Reform

Resident Scholar
Frederick M. Hess
Teacher pay is a flashpoint in contemporary debates on education reform. Broadly speaking, the discussion focuses on two central questions: How much should teachers be paid? and What factors should determine teachers' compensation? The debate regarding teacher pay is striking for the variety of recommendations that are made and the strong claims about the consequences of action or inaction. Various commentators argue that changing teacher compensation has the potential to increase or decrease student achievement, boost or depress the morale and performance of teachers, and improve or worsen teacher recruitment and retention. This split reflects a stark divide in the teacher compensation debate, which we will discuss shortly.

These debates play out against a backdrop of widespread discontent with the status quo approach to teacher compensation among education reformers. Most school districts in the United States base teacher compensation on a "uniform salary schedule," according to which teachers are paid primarily on the basis of two factors: experience and education. "Experience" refers to teaching experience, although some districts allow credit for military or other experience. In some districts, teaching experience must have been completed in that district or in the same state in order for a teacher to receive credit. Education mostly refers to college and graduate school work: a bachelor's degree is the minimum, and teachers can receive additional pay for attaining master's degrees or doctorates (and sometimes for completing credit hours without obtaining an additional degree). Teachers receive salary increases by proceeding along overlapping "steps and lanes"--consecutive steps correspond to years of experience, and lanes correspond to education.

A legacy of a time when college-educated women lacked other viable professional opportunities and it was unexceptional for teachers to work in a given district or school for decades, this arrangement is assailed by critics as anachronistic and inefficient. In the run-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for instance, teacher pay attracted the attention of leading contenders, including Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Candidate and U.S. Senator Barack Obama created a stir with his July 2007 speech to the National Education Association, in which he defended the idea of linking teachers' pay to specialty and performance--in addition to providing them with across-the-board raises. . . .

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Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

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