According to Jacob Vigdor of the Manhattan Institute and the University of Washington, the problem is the way raises are structured over a teacher’s lifetime. Across the country, salaries generally start low — much lower than for other professionals — although there are boosts for advanced degrees and other credentials. Over time, as a teacher racks up years of experience, his or her salary also rises, peaking when that teacher reaches his or her mid 50s and is close to retirement.
Such a pay structure might make sense if credentials helped ensure better teaching and if every additional year on the job came with some sort of improvement in effectiveness. In fact, Vigdor explains, “the available evidence suggests that the connection between credentials and teaching effectiveness is very weak at best, and the connection between additional years of experience and teaching effectiveness, while substantial in the first few years in the classroom, attenuates over time.” (In a North Carolina study, increases in student test scores were found to largely level off after a teacher had reached six years of experience.)
And so we have built a system in which educators early in their careers are both underpaid and insufficiently rewarded for improvements in performance while those later in their careers are paid for progress in the classroom that they are not making. This stands in contrast, Vigdor argues, to the pay structure for doctors, for example, who also make rapid gains in expertise early on and generally reach an earnings plateau in their 30s.
Rather than rewarding teachers for degrees and years on the job, Vigdor suggests implementing an “evidence-based salary schedule” that would “directly reward teachers when they demonstrate evidence of greater effectiveness” and, in doing so, shift earnings to the early part of a teacher’s career. Of course, older teachers will not like to have their salaries capped or even docked, but the savings could pay for the increased compensation for younger teachers, who are sure to prefer the plan.
Alternatively, state and local governments could phase in the new approach by grandfathering in current teachers, which would be more expensive but also more politically palatable. Either way, Vigdor finds that an evidence-based salary schedule will promote better teaching, which ought to be our highest priority.