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The Nation’s Largest Teachers Union Calls for Revamp of Teacher-Pay System

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, or NEA, came out against single-salary teacher-compensation systems at an Education Writers Association, or EWA, event held earlier this month in Chicago. “Let’s get rid of step-and-lane,” he declared. “I don’t like it. It forces people to work for peanuts when they start, and if you stay there 30 years, you get all the way to, depending on the state, $40,000, $70,000, or $80,000 …”

Van Roekel: In his own words

“Teachers unions didn’t create the step-and-lane,” Van Roekel said. He cited the fact that 95 percent of school districts use them “because it’s the cheapest way to pay a large group of people there is. … There’s a reason they did it.” Van Roekel expressed openness to differentiated compensation systems, but explained the complexity involved in trying to design them:

“Let’s get rid of step-and-lane. I don’t like it. It forces people to work for peanuts when they start, and if you stay there 30 years, you get all the way to, depending on the state, $40,000, $70,000, or $80,000 … The first thing you have to decide on is what you differentiate the pay on? Is it skills and knowledge? Is it responsibility? And as soon as you decide that answer, you have to say: How will I measure it? If you can do those two things, then you can implement that system. … I am more than willing to look at alternative compensation systems. I don’t think we pay [teachers] enough when they start; we don’t pay them enough when they end. And there are a lot of different ways to differentiate, but I do know based on the work I’ve done for 20-some years, it will cost more money, and if you’re not willing to invest more into compensation systems, it’s a really difficult challenge to find a different way of paying [teachers].”

Step-and-lane pay scales, which tie teachers’ salary increases to years of experience and to the number of higher-education credits earned and degrees attained, have long been a hot topic of debate in education-reform circles. The step-and-lane pay scale was created to address inequities for teachers who were traditionally provided little in the way of salary, security, or fairness, by standardizing teacher pay.

While step-and-lane pay scales are the most frequently used compensation system, the NEA has developed a Professional Growth Salary Framework. The framework’s goal is to examine effective practices, student outcomes, and other factors for its local affiliates to consider before advancing in collaboration with districts.

As the teaching profession has evolved, however, the stagnant nature of step-and-lane pay scales must be reconsidered. This is particularly true as new teacher-evaluation policies shift from identifying teachers as highly qualified to highly effective. Currently, teacher salaries in most districts are disconnected from effectiveness. As the Center for American Progress has written, while school districts spend more on teachers’ salaries and benefits than any other expenditure, research shows that the way these funds are spent does not improve the performance, quality, or distribution of the teacher workforce.

Moreover, step-and-lane pay scales aren’t helping to attract or retain the best teacher candidates. Today, teacher-workforce demographics show that 52 percent of practicing teachers have 10 or fewer years of experience. In fact, there are more first-year teachers in U.S. classrooms than teachers at any other experience level. These data reinforce the need to design a compensation system that recognizes teachers’ accomplishments sooner and links those accomplishments to tangible rewards.

The prerequisite for a compensation system prefaced on teachers’ accomplishments is, of course, a way to identify effective teachers. As states implement more meaningful teacher-evaluation systems, they are building the foundation for other policies—including compensation and career ladders—based on the information gained from those systems.

If districts reconsider step-and-lane pay scales—and we strongly urge that they do—they should look to create a modern compensation system that values teachers’ contributions to student growth and achievement and mirrors the goals of many teacher-evaluation systems being piloted and implemented in the majority of districts across the United States. The evaluation and compensation systems would then align to identify and pay highly effective teachers. With that information and incentive, districts could leverage the skills and knowledge of highly effective teachers into greater responsibilities to improve the overall teaching force in districts.

But this will all come at a cost, as Van Roekel noted during his EWA remarks, “If you’re not willing to invest more money into the compensation system, it’s a really difficult challenge to find a different way of paying [teachers].”

The NEA should be commended for voicing concerns about an outdated compensation system. It’s time to take salaries off a fixed schedule and make them a more meaningful reflection of teaching effectiveness.

Kaitlin Pennington is an Education Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.