Step Increases and Raises

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One area of teacher compensation we in the education field (I was a teacher for thirty-three years) have never done a very good job of explaining is the difference between salary schedule step advancement compared to base salary raises.  Since they are similar in many ways—after all, money is money—it’s understandable that people not associated with public education wouldn’t know that there is any difference at all.  But if everybody understood how teachers see these as separate issues, at least discussions surrounding them would be based on our speaking the same language.   Those of us in public education need to teach the general public how those two concepts work in order to lessen some of the tension currently surrounding teacher pay.

Most school districts in this area—actually all of them in Illinois but a couple—have salary schedules.  I’ve gone over how they work before (see https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/teacher-salary-schedule-background/), but to review, teachers advance on the salary schedule based on how many years they have worked and how much education they have.  A first-year teacher having just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience starts at the first cell of a schedule (upper left-hand corner), which is known as the Base Salary.  That cell is also assigned an Index Number; in the case of the base salary, its index number is 1.00.

Every other cell on the salary schedule, as you move down and to the right, is also given an index number larger than 1.00 (which is another way of saying 100%–a first-year teacher earns 100% of the base salary).  So a second-year teacher might make 3% more than a first-year teacher, thus having an index number of 1.03.  That movement from first-to-second-year is known to teachers as a Step.  Each salary schedule will have a fixed number of steps for each Column in the schedule.  Columns move from left to right on the schedule, with the least amount of education for a teacher—a Bachelor’s degree—being the first column on the left; a Master’s degree column is usually in the middle of the schedule, and the last column on the far right typically means a teacher has earned a doctorate or has forty-five-to-sixty hours of graduate credit beyond a Master’s degree.

So teachers will move down and to the right as they gain both experience and education throughout their careers.  Most salary schedules have roughly twenty steps and five columns.  That final cell at the bottom right of a salary schedule will therefore have the highest salary and largest index number, usually at least  twice as large as the base salary, or an index number of 2.00 (most are higher at 2.20 to 2.40).  To determine any salary on the schedule, all you have to do is to multiply the base salary times the index number for whatever cell a teacher currently occupies:  A ten-year veteran with a Master’s degree might make 1.65 times the base salary, for instance.  If the base salary were $50,000 (for a first-year teacher with no experience and a B.A.), that ten-year Master’s teacher would earn $82,500, or 65% more than that first-year teacher.

The increase in the base salary is typically what is debated when new teacher contracts are negotiated.  If the base salary goes up a certain percentage, all the other cells on the salary schedule will automatically increase by that same percentage.  The issue for many is that not only are teachers receiving more money due to the increase in the base salary, but that the experience step provides an additional raise over the previous year’s salary.  So, if that second-year teacher whose increase from the previous year due to her step was 3% and the base salary also went up 1.5%, then that teacher will be getting a 4.5% raise.  With inflation averaging roughly 2% or less for the past several years, many in the general public see that 4.5% as way too much.

Teachers—especially union advocates as I once was—see that raise differently.  No, we don’t deny the teacher got 4.5% more than the previous year.  What salary schedules mean to us is that teaching experience has an inherent value which should be recognized as separate from the issues typically argued during a contract negotiations: The cost of living, how one district’s pay compares to another, or how much a district can afford are the matters seen as relevant when a teachers’ union and a school board are negotiating the base salary.  Having salaries go up because a fifth-year teacher’s skills have increased over his fourth year, thus making him worth more to the district, is what the step provides.  Nobody really discusses step increases this way, but they essentially are an attempt at determining how much more a teacher is worth from one year to the next.  Unlike the base salary discussions, a step really isn’t about how much the cost of living has risen this year; it’s that teachers’ skills have improved, thus making them more valuable.

Now, how much a teacher improves from year to year is hardly a uniform procedure or universally applicable.  I would suggest the largest increase in a teacher’s value occurs from year one to year two.  Ask any teacher about his/her skills in that horrific first year of teaching (and I would argue the “first year” challenges occur even when an experienced teacher moves from one district to another), and you will get an earful.  Almost all of the teachers I have known (and that would number in the hundreds) will tell you that they have no idea how they made it through their first year, that if teaching had stayed that difficult throughout their careers, they would have quit after a couple years for certain.  And the attrition rate for teachers is very high; something like 40% of certified teachers will leave the profession within five years.  (See http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/, an excellent article from The Atlantic, for more on why teachers quit.)

So experience does matter.  Each year, a teacher’s skills improve, making that teacher more valuable than she was the year before.  Salary schedules recognize and reward that fact. The unasked and unanswered question, then, is at what point do teachers become as good as they can get. The rate of improvement probably does decrease each year after that first year to the point where only relatively minor upticks take place, suggesting that someone in her thirtieth year of teaching really isn’t very different from the teacher she was in her twenty-ninth year.  I would argue that over 90% of a teacher’s teaching ability will be in place after ten-to-fifteen years.  Thus, spreading out the “ability improvement” pay increases over twenty years, as is currently the practice in most school districts, is actually a bargain for the taxpayers.

You see, teacher salaries have lagged behind other professions which require similar education for a very long time.  It’s only in recent years that some of the more prosperous suburbs with assertive teacher unions have compensated their teachers at a rate which made teaching an attractive profession for those who needed something other than a “second” (translated, “much smaller”) income in a two-income household.  And recent salary settlements in this area have reflected that teachers recognize their salaries are pretty good; very few teacher unions in the past several years have been able to negotiate base salary increases at or above the inflation rate, and many have agreed to freezing teachers at their current steps, meaning that they did not get any experience increases for one or more years.

So it is more important than ever for everyone to understand the role salary schedules have played in public education over the past thirty years.  We saw how disagreements over their importance can lead to significant problems when a majority on Hinsdale Township High School District 86’s school board tried to increase the amount of time it took to achieve maximum experience on the schedule by doubling the number of steps and halving the increase each step was worth.  A strike was narrowly averted, but a work stoppage could be all but a certainty in the fall of 2016 unless the April 7 elections create a new 4-3 majority.  Some District 86 board members are still grumbling about the “large” salary increases the narrow settlement provided, even though the base salary increased a scant 1.02% and 1.05% over the two year agreement (The Consumer Price Index increased 1.5% and 1.6% the last two years, meaning the base salary lost about 1% to inflation over that span).  But teachers still earning steps got more than that, leading to some board members haranguing about “unsustainable” increases.

That’s not to say that salary schedules and their steps are sacrosanct.  I believe that few would argue against encouraging teachers to garner advanced degrees, so the columns on a salary schedule probably won’t be challenged any time in the near future.  And most school boards recognize that teachers do get better with experience and want to show they value that experience with higher salaries meted out through the twenty-year cycle of steps.  But for those who want to change the way that salary schedules work, they need to recognize that steps are actually a relatively economical way to reward that increased experience.  Like any system, it isn’t perfect; and there probably will be teachers earning 3% steps who really haven’t improved that much from one year to the next.  But the alternative—at least from a teacher’s point of view—would be to raise base salaries substantially with an abbreviated salary schedule that would have teachers reach top salaries in ten years or less.

In fact, I was in favor of something like that—a base salary about $15,000 higher than it currently is with a ten-step schedule that topped out at about 2.25 times the base salary and two columns—Bachelor’s and Master’s.  What some District 86 board members were pushing was merit pay along with one increase for a Master’s degree, which would have drastically reduced current teacher career earnings.  Given those two extremes, a twenty-year climb to the top salary with many graduate-level classes and a couple of additional degrees might not seem like such a bad compromise.  At the very least, however, it would be helpful for everyone to understand that salary schedules don’t just give teachers step raises; their purpose is to acknowledge that teachers get better with experience and to provide salaries that reflect that value.

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