••• Education •••

The Teacher Salary Matrix – Caught in a Net

In my last post regarding teacher pay, the focus was on the question of whether teachers are over- or underpaid. The theme of this piece is HOW teacher pay is determined and ultimately the negative impact it has on education.

Typically, the salary schedule for teachers takes the form (and name) of a matrix. Here is the current salary schedule from Topeka Public Schools. The matrix is structured with columns representing the educational attainment of the teacher while the rows sort of stand for the number of years of teaching experience.  Where the column and the row intersect is how much a particular teacher is compensated.

Seems sensible, right? Just kidding. It’s a terrible way to pay teachers and there are several reasons why.

One reason this system needs be put on the scrap heap is that it is strictly an INPUT model.  To put it simply, no consideration is given to the performance or the ability of a teacher.  That just doesn’t matter when it comes to paying teachers. Furthermore, there is substantial research evidence that educational attainment of the teacher does not impact student outcomes. A research synthesis paper by the Center for Education Compensation Reform (CECR) concluded: “The preponderance of evidence suggests that teachers who have completed graduate degrees are not significantly more effective at increasing student learning than those with no more than a bachelor’s degree.”

Another rationale for running the matrix through the paper shredder is that it is not market-based. It assumes all teachers across all grades levels and all disciplines have equal value.  In other words, an elementary school P.E. teacher is valued the same as a high school physics teacher. Does anyone really believe those two positions would be considered economic equals in a free market? That is emblematic of the overarching theme that has polluted virtually every aspect of public education: egalitarianism.  And the supporting argument goes something like this: “Well, the P.E. teacher has a very important function in the physical well-being of the child. And we all know a healthy body is necessary for a healthy mind.”

True…but there is NEVER a discussion of the RELATIVE value of teachers within the system. That, of course, would violate the egalitarian canon.  If we were all making widgets on an assembly line, it would make sense that we all get essentially the same pay. But regardless of what teachers’ unions like to convey, not all teaching subjects are equal. Much has been written and discussed in recent years about the difficulty public education has in attracting and keeping quality teachers in the fields of math and science. The salary matrix is Exhibit A in that concern.

A third reason the matrix needs to go the way of the 8-track tape player is that it serves to restrict the amount of money a teacher can make.  It’s metaphoric that a matrix is designed in the shape of a net because, speaking as a teacher, working under the salary matrix is like being caught in a net. So, what happens when a teacher wants to make more money in the organization? He or she can only escape the constraints of the net by getting into administration, principally as a principal. And that’s why most teachers become principals: to make more money – not to manage a school effectively.

So, the salary matrix approach rewards mediocrity while failing to recognize teachers monetarily for good performance, doesn’t promote improved student outcomes, keeps schools from attracting quality teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, and forces people out of the classroom to make more money.

How does such an ineffective system endure?  Because it is easy. It’s easy for the parties on both sides of the bargaining table to have a Three Musketeers approach. Coupled with the lack of accountability that has shielded public education, there is no internal incentive to change.

Reformers outside education have been trying for years to inject merit pay for teachers into the system without much success. Does that mean we are stuck with the matrix for eternity?

It doesn’t have to be that way, and in my next piece on teacher pay, I will outline a comprehensive approach that can lead teacher pay to be market driven and merit based.