How Should School Districts Shape Teacher Salary Schedules? Linking School Performance to Pay Structure in Traditional Compensation Schemes

Education reformers have long argued against step-and-lane salary structures and defined-benefit pension systems, lamenting that they keep burned-out teachers in classrooms longer than is prudent, push away strong young candidates who could make many more dollars in other lines of work, and thereby hurt student achievement. This study by Katharine Strunk and Jason Grissom empirically evaluates how front- and back-loaded teacher-salary schedules impact student performance. (Front-loaded schedules provide larger raises early in a teacher’s career and smaller ones later; back-loading concentrates raises among veteran teachers.) The analysts use nationally representative school data from the Schools and Staffing Survey and student-proficiency data in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading from a limited number of states (fifteen to twenty, depending on the grade and subject). Half of all districts frontload salaries; however, the districts that backload do so to a much greater degree: The average back-loading district provides 135 percent more yearly returns (or bump in pay for years experience), whereas in districts that frontload, novice teachers get 37 percent greater returns for their years of experience than do veterans, on average. Further, districts that bargain collectively with teacher unions are more likely to have back-loaded salary structures—unsurprising as unions tend to be dominated by their older members. Regarding student achievement: The analysts find that back-loading is consistently negatively associated with students reaching proficiency benchmarks in both math and reading and across elementary and middle school grades, but the magnitude is small and the relationship not necessarily causal. What to make of these data? The authors posit that awarding higher salaries early in teachers’ careers is important in attracting quality candidates. But compensation can be awarded in other ways. For districts struggling under onerous collective-bargaining agreements, other financial perks such as loan-forgiveness or signing bonuses might make sense instead. Worthy advice, indeed.

Jason A. Grissom and Katharine O. Strunk, “How Should School Districts Shape Teacher Salary Schedules? Linking School Performance to Pay Structure in Traditional Compensation Schemes” (Journal of Educational Policy, volume 26, number 5, September 2012).

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