Empty classroom
James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

Recently in the Springfield News-Leader, I argued that school districts should reconsider how they pay teachers. Most districts use a step-and-lane salary schedule, which rewards teachers for years of experience and extra degrees. I argued in my op-ed that salary schedules are a poor way to pay teachers. Since I was limited to 500 words, I focused on demonstrating how schedules, which are nonbinding, often create tension in times of financial stress. My suggestion was that school districts “should examine how they pay teachers.”

Teacher compensation is an important policy discussion. Yet, too often the mere suggestion of change is met with hostility by teachers. As a former teacher myself, I understand that there is safety in salary schedules along with uncertainty about what they might be replaced with. Indeed, one retired teacher took to the newspaper’s pages to make this point. Although she didn’t argue specifically for salary schedules, it was clear that she was averse to change. But many people are examining how we pay teachers, and they often reach the same conclusion I reached—we need to change how we do business. But what should that change look like?

On July 27, a National Public Radio station in Michigan ran a story called, “Are we thinking about teacher pay all wrong?” The piece described Washington, D.C.’s merit-based pay system. As the piece notes, “There are two parts to the D.C. pay system: an annual bonus of up to $25,000 after one year of being rated 'highly effective,' and an increase in base salary of up to $27,000 for teachers who are rated 'highly effective' two or more years in a row.” Rigorous evaluation has shown that D.C.’s system, which is a combination of pay reform and a new teacher evaluation process, has improved the teacher workforce and led to an increase in student achievement.

There is of course still debate as to whether the D.C. model could be effectively implemented in other cities, let alone in rural parts of Missouri. Nevertheless, Missouri students and teachers would benefit from a critical examination of our teacher pay policies.

Unfortunately, too many teachers (like the one who wrote a response to me) and their union representatives seem unwilling to have a serious discussion on this important matter. One teacher in the NPR story suggested that we “need to offer starting teachers an apprentice pay for 5 years at $55,000. If they are effective after 5 years, bump them up to $75,000. If they are highly effective pay them $100,000.” Such a structure simply is not economically feasible. The response from David Hecker, of the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan, was equally unsatisfying. He first suggested that “starting pay should be comparable to other professions,” but went on to ask, “Should the senior teacher get more for experience, or the younger teacher who needs to make a decent living so they can be attracted to and stay in the field? That should never be the trade off.” His answer displays a fundamental lack of economic understanding. Of course there is a trade-off! There is always a trade-off.

We should not continue to pay teachers solely based on years of experience and extra degrees, especially when those things are not closely related to student outcomes. But in any case, if we are going to have a fruitful conversation, teachers need to come to the table with thoughtful suggestions. Maybe then we could create a system that truly fosters excellence and rewards teachers for the hard work they do.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.