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EDU FAQ #002: What’s all this about teacher salaries?

Maybe you’ve heard about “teacher salary compression.” If not, maybe you’ve just heard that “teachers don’t get paid enough.” Here’s everything you need to know about that particular topic.




Photo by: me is dmtr

Teacher salary compression is a real thing, and its effects on the state of education in Richmond are many and vast.

In case the term confuses, “salary compression” refers to new hires being brought in at similar (or higher) salaries than existing hires. Usually, the cause is that internal raises are increasing at a slower rate than the outside world’s pay is increasing.

The debate about whether teacher pay affects student achievement is long-standing, and there is plenty of research to support arguments for and against. Some of the most educationally successful countries in the world (Finland, I’m looking at you) also have some of the most modestly paid teachers.1

And while we most likely won’t reach a consensus here about the long term impact of teacher pay on student success, it is important to examine the budget proposal Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Superintendent Dana Bedden has presented that will begin to pay teachers based on their experience, the reasons for such a proposal, and the possible effects it could have on RPS.

We know that student success depends on numerous influences,2 and as Bedden mentioned at a December school board meeting, the correlations between high poverty and low achievement simply can’t be ignored. Bedden, and many others, have argued that high quality teachers are necessary for combating these trends and that providing competitive salaries helps a district attract and keep the best teachers. Hence the proposal (I’m going to explain all that later. Promise.).

Ensuring high quality education in our public schools benefits not just the families who the system serves, but the region as a whole.

It is important to note again (and again and again and again), that ensuring high quality education in our public schools benefits not just the families who the system serves, but the region as a whole. I don’t think any of us can hear this enough. Go ahead and get used to me saying it now.

The impact of quality education includes reduced crime, reduced healthcare costs, increased property values, economic development, and the creation of a future work force, all of which are vital to this blooming region and the residents who live there, whether they have school-age children or not. In other words–yes, I’m talking to those of us who decided that bringing children into our lives was a good idea, but I’m also talking to those of you that decided not to, haven’t yet, and those of you whose children have left the nest. We all win when education is a top priority, because no one has ever said, “Yes, please, all of the crime and all of the low property value is A-OK with me!”

Yet, many Richmond families have chosen to opt out of RPS due to, among other factors,3 the lingering perceptions around RPS’ persistent problems with teacher quality and retention. Statewide, teachers who are not considered highly qualified comprise 1% of the average district’s staff. RPS has a much higher average of 5%, whereas neighboring counties closely mirror state averages. While 5% is not a monumental number, it is indicative of the larger problem RPS has with attracting and keeping qualified teachers. At the same time, it shows, that despite the perceptions of those fleeing the city school system, the vast majority of teachers, 95% in fact, are highly qualified.4

Additionally, an inability to retain teachers, especially at the highest need schools, continues to increase. A Richmond Times Dispatch article reported in June that RPS still tops the region with an increased three year average turnover rate of 13.3%, compared to Chesterfield which increased to 9.8% and Henrico, whose rate decreased to 5.7%.5 In the RTD article, Charlotte Hayer, the president of the Richmond Education Association, attributed part of the increase in turnover to salaries and benefits. Bedden has also stated that Richmond serves as a springboard for new teachers who gain experience in RPS then leave for the counties, where the challenges are less. The hope of RPS is that by creating equity in teacher pay, the district will be able to reverse this movement and retain the teachers they have invested in.

It’s worth noting this is…not such a far-fetched plan if, as a country (a state? a city?), we valued education the way we say we do.

Why? Because research shows time and again the effects of teacher retention and quality are closely tied to student achievement. A 2013 Stanford study (PDF) found schools with higher teacher turnover have lower results in both English and Math, and that effect is stronger in schools serving already low-achieving and black students. Bedden knows that a district like RPS, with high poverty, segregated schools, and low achievement results, must make teacher retention a priority. It won’t solve every problem, and the impact won’t be obvious for years to come. However, that doesn’t mean we (meaning us, the community) shouldn’t support it. The UNESCO 2013-2014 EFA Global Monitoring Report (PDF) on teaching and learning has made improving educational quality an international goal, and specifically states that “to improve learning, particularly for disadvantaged groups, governments need to develop national education plans that aim to improve teacher quality and management.” It’s worth noting this is an international goal and not such a far-fetched plan if, as a country (a state? a city?), we valued education the way we say we do.

This leads us to Bedden’s FY2017 proposed budget, which includes a $4.97 million line item (reduced from an original request of $8.8 million) that would unfreeze the teacher pay scale and begin paying teachers based on years of experience. Dating back to 2001, there is no data to indicate the last time teachers were granted a step increase based on experience. This was also the last year a cost of living adjustment was granted to teachers. Between FY 2010 and 2012, the district froze pay increases for all staff, and then in 2013 the school board approved a five-day furlough, further reducing teacher salaries, paired with a mandated 3% teacher increased contribution to VRS.6

All of this is to say that Richmond teachers, despite rising costs, have not been fairly compensated for a very long time. Aaron Garber, pre-kindergarten teacher, who has taught at Linwood Holton for 10 years, said “Each year it feels that we make less and less. In a way I feel like I was duped. Who would ever choose to enter a profession where you knew you wouldn’t receive raises?”

Christopher Lombardi, a fifth grade teacher at Mary Munford who has taught in RPS for 13 years, has been an active organizer and voice in favor of Bedden’s proposal. He reached out to Human Resources, asked for past pay scales dating back to 2000, and compiled the teacher salary schedules into this handy table (PDF), which shows the manipulation of the salary schedules preventing teachers from receiving increases in pay based on experience. This information was presented at the at the January 4th school board meeting by Garber.

Dr. Bedden’s preliminary statement of needs (PDF) from December 2015 allocated approximately 8.8 million of the FY 2017 budget to unfreeze the teacher salary scale and “promote internal equity based on certificated teaching experience.”7

Teachers who have worked in the district for the last nine years are still being paid the same, or less, than zero experience teachers.

An example. Teachers who have worked in the district for the last nine years are still being paid the same, or less, than zero experience teachers. According to RPS’ aforementioned schedules, a teacher starting with zero experience in 2008 would have earned a starting salary of $39,712 and expected to get their first year of experience raise in 2010. But, RPS adjusted their conversion scale, and that teacher needed to wait until they had four years of experience for that first raise. The needed years of experience continued to jump up each year, so the teacher hired in 2008 has yet to see a pay increase based on experience. Meanwhile, a zero experience teacher starting in 2015 will earn a starting pay of $44,525, a difference of 11%.

Both Garber and Lombardi (as well as four other teachers and community members) spoke in support of Bedden’s proposal at the February 22nd City Council Meeting. Garber explained that RPS Teachers have long suffered under this frozen pay scale, which, coupled with dwindling and disappearing raises, forced furlough days, and mandated Virginia Retirement System (VRS) contributions, have made it difficult for teachers to keep up with the rise in cost of living. It also doesn’t help that RPS continually ranks well below both state and national averages in regard to teacher pay.

“My wife teaches for RPS making the impact on our household two fold. Neither of us entered the profession under the notion that we’d get rich as teachers, but we certainly assumed that we would see upward financial mobility, some type of financial respect,” Garber said. At the City Council meeting, he stated that if raises based on experience had been granted as originally scheduled, he and his wife would make a combined $13,500 more a year than they currently do. That is a big number. Not just big, but life-changing.

The impact is bigger than that, though. Bedden noted at a Take 30 event on February 18th, that RPS is the largest functional component of the city with over 3,855 employees. While not all of those are teachers or support staff, many are. And many would be positively affected if the pay structure is corrected.

Bedden’s proposed adjustment is timely, as frustrations mount and teachers continue to flee the district for the surrounding counties. “I will say that I am very cautiously optimistic, as I realize that that was just the first step in an attempt to appropriate funds to our needs. I can only hope that our City councilmembers and the mayor see that we’ve been waiting for far too long to see some financial respect,” Garber said.

Bedden’s proposal would right this, while promoting internal equity in the division by rewarding and retaining the highly qualified and highly successful teachers they already employ. If they can stabilize the teaching workforce by providing competitive salaries, as well as attract the best teachers to the district, perhaps gains can be made to decrease the district’s low achievement. The proposal also recognizes that teachers deserve to be financially compensated for the hard work they do daily to ensure their students are well educated and prepared for college and careers.

Said Garber, “I feel for the first time that I may see the correcting of a broken system that has continued to deteriorate since I became a teacher.”


Want to start at the very beginning?

It’s a very good place to start!

  1. The Guardian reported on how the job of a teacher compares around the world. No big surprise that Finland tops that list. 
  2. Oh, let me count the things: poverty, curriculum, resources, teacher effectiveness, literacy, familial education levels, and so, so much more. 
  3. Other factors include low test scores, perceptions about violence, subpar instruction, lack of resources, and deteriorating facilities. 
  4. Don’t confuse highly qualified with highly effective. They aren’t the same. Highly qualified is defined by the federal government. Effectiveness is measured by the evaluation systems that each state adopts based on federal guidelines. The data on quality, as measured by teacher evaluation systems, is not released. Additional data about teacher quality (the highly qualified kind) can be found on school report cards on the VDOE website
  5. RPS rate increased from 9.2%, while Chesterfield’s increased from 7.3% and Henrico’s decreased from 7%. 
  6. Districts report workforce data to the Virginia Department of Education. Their website lists reports back to the 2001-2002 school year and includes, among other things, information on salaries and local actions taken by school districts to increase teacher pay. To look for yourself, check out the VDOE Education Workforce Data and Reports
  7. According to the Compensation Study Report

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