Why Teachers Get Paid Differently Than Other Professionals (Part One)

One of the most perplexing elements of the teaching profession to outsiders and novices is the way teachers’ salaries and pay raises are determined. Unlike most jobs in the private sector, educators are typically paid according to salary scales that use quantifiable metrics like years of service and numbers of college credits to determine how much a teacher should earn.

This means that, in most cases, teachers can only increase their pay through one of the following means:

The salary scale system is not without its flaws, but it tends to solve more problems than it creates. Several qualities of the model make it an especially good fit for the teaching profession.

The salary scale rewards experience and education

By design, teacher salary guides are aligned horizontally according to an employee’s tenure of service and level of education. These are simple, straight-forward measures that reward experience in the field.

The rationale for this system is rooted in the belief that two of the most important factors in becoming a successful teacher are time spent teaching and time invested in professional development. Salary scales reward these factors and, as a result, most teachers can reliably expect a pay raise with each additional school year.

By contrast, when it comes to determining salaries and bonuses in the private sector, it is common for other results-focused metrics (like sales figures, client satisfaction, and corporate growth) to weigh more heavily on a decision than an employee’s longevity or college degrees. Yearly raises are commonplace, but the amounts tend to be awarded more subjectively.

There are school districts that have tried such an approach, but unlike in the business world, teachers’ “products” are hard to quantify. To put a numerical value on the fruits of an educator’s efforts relies (at least in part) upon measures like student results on standardized tests and skill assessments. Scores and formulas would then have to be applied to then tie student achievement to teacher performance (and, in turn, compensation).

The numerous legal and political challenges to the legitimacy of these measurement tools are often enough to keep districts locked into the traditional salary-guide model. Teachers’ unions and the collective bargaining process also tend to reject the veracity and legitimacy of these types of calculations.

For now at least, the combination of teaching experience and educational self-improvement remain the predominant factors in determining teacher pay.

The salary scale diminishes professional competitiveness

High-quality education takes a village. When teaching is at its best, it is a collaborative endeavor undertaken by a team of passionate and dedicated stakeholders working in the best interests of students.

One of the problems with private-sector compensation models like merit-based pay is that it spurs competition instead of said collaboration.

In schools, this type of shift is antithetical to the aim of a supportive learning environment. Teachers are disincentivized from helping each other. Every colleague becomes a potential rival for a higher personal salary or bonus.

Ultimately, merit pay systems give teachers cause to promote themselves and their own efforts rather than dedicating those energies toward student learning and engagement. Children become the unwitting pawns in an adult game of compensation as things like standardized test prep and resume-padding become incentivized over collaboration and innovation.

Cast in such a light, salary guides carry far fewer risks to collegiality than the more business-like alternatives.

With scaled salaries, no amount of professional jockeying or politicking is required to ensure a teacher maximizes their yearly earning potential. A teacher’s performance is not measured against another’s. Instead, experience and furthering one’s own education are rewarded. The focus can remain on growing as a professional and continually doing right by students rather than asking teachers to construct a self-aggrandizing case to prove it.


Read more:

  1. The Pros and Cons of Merit Based Pay for Teachers
  2. The Great Teacher Dilemma: The Best Paying Jobs Are Often Found in the Most Expensive Places to Live
  3. Merit Pay Misfires