The Case for Paying Most Teachers the Same

By 03/10/2011

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I know it’s an article of faith in the school-reform community that we should “differentiate” among teachers and pay them “differentially” too. Highly effective teachers should get paid more than mediocre ones; individuals willing to work in poor schools should get bigger paychecks than those serving the well-to-do; those in high-demand fields (like math and science) should get more than their peers. I get all of that, and generally agree.

I also understand that the “single-salary schedule” is seen as the nemesis to smart teacher policy. And that’s also true. But what makes the single schedule so pernicious isn’t just its uniformity; it’s its growth curve. Twenty-five years veterans are paid a lot more than five-year veterans even though, on average, they are equally effective. Changing that curve is at least as important as introducing more differentiation in pay.

This isn’t my idea, or a new idea. Two years ago, Duke economist Jacob Vigdor published an excellent article in Education Next, “Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule.” His analysis can be summed up in the graphic below.

Click to enlarge

In all professions, new hires get paid significantly less at the start. But in fields like medicine and law, pay rises rapidly–as soon as employees boost their effectiveness and productivity from on-the-job experience. In education, on the other hand, pay rises slowly, even though teachers’ effectiveness plateaus after as little as two (and no more than five) years on the job. (The same goes for pension wealth, as Chris explained yesterday.) In short, Vigdor argues,we should pay young teachers more, and older teachers less, than we do now. In other words, we should make their pay more alike.

If we had such a system now, the debate around “last in, first out” would take on a completely different tone. No longer would older teachers be worried that districts, undeterred by LIFO rules, would get rid of the most veteran, most expensive teachers—because the veterans wouldn’t be any more expensive than most of their peers. And if we had a different pension system—one that allowed teachers to build pension wealth throughout their careers and take it with them whenever they left—then they wouldn’t be worried about losing their big payout by getting fired a few years before retirement.

Seniority rights are a big deal right now because older teachers have a lot to lose: higher salaries that they’ve reached after a lifetime of anemic ones; and significant pension wealth if they make it to retirement. If we compressed the salary schedule and moved to a cash-balance pension system, we could eliminate these perverse dynamics. And we’d make teaching a lot more attractive to young people, to boot.

—Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • […] whether it is or not, the latter is likely to be true almost all the time. As Michael Petrilli points out in Ed Next, teacher pay scales continually rise with experience even though studies show that only […]

  • drkrick says:

    It’s worth noting that a casual viewer of this chart, missing the distinction between relative and absolute pay on the y axis, could come away with the impression that teacher pay peaks at something like the same level as doctor and teacher pay. Given the large number of myths already circulating about the pay of public employees like teachers, it would have been a good idea to take a bit more care in putting together the chart to avoid that possibility.

  • Phil_L says:

    Teacher pay is also commonly linked to the achievement of advanced degrees. In many cases, picking up a Master’s or Doctorate has to wait until after the early child rearing years, which has the effect of holding down the max earning years until later.

    Most teachers of my acquaintance freely admit that they were just beginning to get their sea legs after the first two years on the job–the learning curve (and teacher effectiveness) still trends upwards for years beyond that. Contrary to your opinion, (or Vigdor’s, it’s not clear from the writing), the assertion that “teacher effectiveness plateaus after…two years” is simplistic and disparaging.

  • Leonie Haimson says:

    Absolutely untrue your claim that “Twenty-five years veterans are… on average equally effective.” Many studies show improved effectiveness for up to 20 years of teaching experience or more. See

    Actually there is more evidence of improved effectiveness from teaching experience in than any other profession I know of. And yet the attacks on experienced teachers are more vicious.

  • John Thompson says:

    Every time a union tries to reduce salary steps, its members respond in the same non-rational way as “reformers.” Every year I would watch my local president explain a graph like you showed. Invariably, he’d convince the audience, but afterwards the emotional responses would take over and he’d re-explain next year.

    If we paid everyone the same, at Step 5 or whatever, (perhaps after a three-year pre-tenure period) teaching would become more attractive to new talent, especially those who didn’t seek a career, career teachers would make more, it would be easier to get rid of burnouts, and the seniority issue would get much easier.

    To push the point to a more philosophical level, on a rational level, seniority and performance pay should be easier problems than tenure, evaluation, and due process. Real world, I expect the opposite would be the case and veteran union leaders understand that. Seniority and performance pay open up more petty problems, as oppose to the potentially devastating problems caused by removing checks and balances for evaluations. Unions, across the American workforce, did such a good job of helping to create a middle class that we are rich enough to get bogged down in the disputes that aren’t life and death for our profession.

  • […] teacher evaluation, how do you know that you were better?” In fact, most studies have shown that after five years teachers don’t typically improve – thus a five year and a 25 year teacher are typically equally […]

  • Arron Tyler says:

    I believe younger teachers CAN be as effective as the veterans, if they keep their mindset right. The older teachers tend to offer half as much one-on-one time, since they see that their students are all heading in the same direction. Younger teachers will approach a struggling individual, and actually help them undestand something, where older teachers just “preach” if you will. I think if they were payed in accordance to their effectiveness, the level of compitition (wich runs our economy) would rise. I think competition in educating our youth would have drastic impacts on the future, since a better educated student has more drive to be successfull than a simply uneducated youth, who is bound to end up on welfare. Just a guys opinion-

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