OPINION: Seek equal pay for equal work? Don’t become a K-12 teacher

An argument against seniority-based compensation

American politicians universally endorse the principle of equal pay for equal work. But they’re hypocritical in applying it. Just look at the different approaches to gender vs. seniority inequity. During the last two presidential elections, a major campaign theme was outrage that women earn only 77 percent of men’s earnings — a figure President Obama used to select Equal Pay Day’s annual date.

Contrast that benchmark with the inequity between junior and senior teachers. Including only the salary scale, junior teachers commonly earn less than 50 percent as much as senior teachers with the same job description. Including other forms of compensation, most notably retirement benefits, that percentage can drop below 5 percent.

Consider my school district in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. For two teachers with identical job descriptions, a teacher at the bottom rung of the salary scale earns only 41 percent as much as one at the top. Critics counter that years of teaching experience and academic course credits are correlated with better teaching. But some academic studies indicate minimal payoff from post-tenure teaching experience and additional academic course credits. Even after five years of teaching, the junior teacher only earns 54 percent as much.

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In addition to the worst pay, junior teachers often get the worst work conditions. They are assigned disproportionately to the least desirable schools, classes and students; and they have the least job security, including senior teachers’ right to bump junior teachers from their teaching position for reasons unrelated to job performance.

Current benefits, notably healthcare, are even more unequally distributed. Since healthcare costs are pooled over all teachers and then divided equally, junior teachers heavily subsidize both senior and retired teachers. Even with the transfers from the young to old under the Affordable Care Act, a 64-year old can pay three times as much as a 21-year old for the same coverage.

But deferred benefits, primarily retirement benefits, are by far the most unequally distributed. Teachers who start at age 25 will take decades just to break even on their pension contributions. For the fraction who come out ahead, pension wealth can spike by more than $1 million the year they become fully vested. Using accrual accounting principles, that means a starting teacher with a salary of $42,420 may earn less than 5 percent of a senior teacher’s peak earnings.

Other dramatic spikes in pension and healthcare retirement benefits come at 10, 15, and 20 years of seniority. The Urban Institute now rates teacher retirement plans in the 50 states with an “F” for rewarding younger teachers and “A” for rewarding senior teachers.

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Senior teachers counter with the plausible-sounding theory that junior teachers will eventually earn as much as senior teachers and that an incentive to stick around fosters a more experienced, competent work force. But some academic studies show that unfairly penalizing junior teachers has the opposite effect.

In any case, this rationalization for pay discrimination is becoming increasingly irrelevant. After the Great Recession, more than 40 states created multiple compensation tiers so that newly hired teachers would permanently earn a smaller pension benefit regardless of their eventual seniority. My school district has even extended tiered discrimination to the salary scale, with step increases for junior teachers waived to fund increases for senior teachers.

Pay discrimination against junior teachers cannot be rationalized as good education policy. It is ultimately based on the political power of the senior teachers who dominate teacher unions and have minimal incentive to represent starting teachers and those who haven’t yet been hired.  Alas, what’s good for senior teachers is not necessarily good for all other teachers.

Unfortunately, the perverse economic and political incentives that preserve this system of discrimination are not only entrenched but growing stronger. Economically, senior teachers benefit when poor pay and working conditions lead to high turnover among junior teachers, as higher junior teacher turnover increases the pool of workers contributing to senior teachers’ benefits. Politically, senior teachers benefit when junior teachers’ low salaries can be marketed to voters to build political support for more education funding, which they then disproportionately pocket. As the gap between junior and senior teachers grows larger, it also grows harder to close without disproportionate harm to senior teachers.

Democratic reforms should seek to change these perverse incentives.  A first step should be to provide accurate and publicly accessible information about the pay discrimination.

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With the federal government annually spending more than $50 billion to fund local schools, Congress should task the Labor Department (experts on equity) and Treasury Department (experts on government budget data collection) with jointly collecting and disclosing such information.

Too much education reform effort has been wasted on implementing performance pay for teachers.

More effort should be focused on reducing non-performance pay, starting with obscene gaps in pay between junior and senior teachers performing the same work.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, frequently writes about education data policy and politics. For more information, see K12Transparency.info.


J.H. Snider

J.H. Snider is the president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit committed to exploring and advancing opportunities for democratic reform, and a former school board member. See Archive

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Claiming there is pay discrimination for junior teachers is outrageous, considering the systems for professional and salary advancement that exist in some school districts. An analysis of the article "Seek Equal Pay for Equal Work"reveals the necessity for junior teachers to value that the work that senior teachers undertake on their behalf. Junior teachers must also see that potential salary increases are contingent upon patience and self-ambition.

First and foremost, assuming that junior and senior teachers are performing the same work is a hasty generalization! Many senior teachers serve in several capacities within schools, due to their proven leadership skills and their exposure to a myriad of work experiences. Positions such as professional developers, team leaders, literacy coaches, mentor teachers, and community engagement liaisons, are positions that senior teachers perform, without any additional compensation. Likewise, most senior teachers will at some point find themselves mentoring junior teachers and will likely receive no payment for their time, resources, and services offered to junior teachers. In my experience as a junior teacher, developing good teaching practices under the leadership of a senior teacher was my main focus. While junior teachers and senior teachers may be both assigned as a classroom teacher, their work and focus is hardly identical.

Consequently, it is important not only to recognize the current status of junior teachers' salaries but to see the potential of future salaries. The Baltimore City Public Schools District (BCPSS) offers merit based salary scale advancement opportunities to all teachers based on their certification renewal, professional development acquisition, and highly effective annual evaluations. The BCPSS has taken initiatives to create salary pathways ranging from the standard base of $48,430 to a lead position at $102,832. The good news is that with patience and hard work, junior teachers will be able to command higher competitive salaries within just a few years. As an ambitious mid-career professional, I have been able to accomplish my professional goals (pursuing a graduate degree, curriculum writing, facilitating professional development, and mentoring new teachers), while being compensated within my salary. What is good for senior teachers, is also possible for junior teachers! A junior teacher's ambition and engagement really determines their salary.

Futhermore, It is not logical to assume that senior teachers are benefiting from the "poor pay and working conditions that lead to high turnover among junior teachers". In Baltimore, both junior and senior teachers would likely agree that no one is benefiting from high turnover. While turnover may be in part due to salary, it is more likely that turnover is the result of inequitable working conditions (schools with no air-conditioning), large class sizes of 35 or more,the lack of resources, and the unconscious omission of cultural responsive teaching.

The wisdom lies in the junior teacher's ability to understand that good things come to those who wait! Pay discrimination is no more than pay intimidation for those teachers who do not see opportunity that lies within moving up pay scales.

- from Krishnia Rainey, Jun 30, 2017