Most American teachers are paid according to a rigid salary scale largely determined by the length of time teaching and the credentials they earn. Such salaries scales were intended to promote fairness and equality among teachers but are increasingly seen as an artifact of a by-gone era that cannot meet the needs of the 21st century.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that teachers’ compensation largely has no relation whatsoever on the achievement growth of their students, the notion that salary scales level the playing field for teachers is flat wrong. On the contrary, even adjusting for regional cost-of-living variances, American teachers’ salaries are all over the map.

A recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) shows how much bang teachers are getting for their salary bucks depending on where they’re working. For example, it takes an average of 24 years (out of a typical 30-year career) for teachers nationwide to reach the standard maximum salary of $75,000. Yet teachers in Boston reach that mark in only 7 years, compared to teachers in Oklahoma City, where it will likely take them closer to 30 years (p.  5). Politico also adds:

A teacher at the top of the salary scale in Columbus, Ohio has more than four times the earning power of an equally veteran teacher in New York City.

In any profession, salaries will vary based on a host of factors—but unlike the teaching profession, those factors are rational. For example, paying teachers based on their performance is becoming the rule rather than the exception in a growing number of countries.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), about half of all member countries reward teaching performance. Those countries use improved student achievement at least in part to determine teachers’ base salaries, annual raises, or one-time bonuses. Research shows that done right, teacher incentive pay programs around the globe are helping raise student achievement significantly—especially among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Here at home a growing number of schools and districts are also implementing teacher incentive pay programs, but as Politico continues:

Pay-for-performance systems…vary widely…In the District of Columbia and Pittsburgh, top-notch teachers can quickly race to the top of the salary scale. That’s not the case in several Louisiana districts that use merit pay systems. In Caddo Parish, for example, an exemplary teacher can expect to earn only marginally more than an average teacher over her career. The NCTQ’s conclusion: “School district leaders, teachers and policy makers must invest in redesigning salary structures if they want to shape teaching into the sustainable career it deserves to be.” 

In spite of teacher union opposition, New Mexico is moving forward with a teacher incentive—or performance—pay program. Such compensation systems are more equitable for teachers as well as students since they make commonsense distinctions between teachers who excel at improving student learning and those who don’t (relative to students’ past performance).