This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the Multiple Choices podcast, Keystone Crossroads senior education writer Kevin McCorry joins with Paul Socolar, publisher and editor of the Public School Notebook, and Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa to explain and explore the history, complexities and controversies of public education funding in Pennsylvania.
A lot, relatively speaking. The average starting salary for a teacher in Pennsylvania as of the 2012-13 school year was $41,901. Nationally, that number puts the state ninth for highest starting teacher pay, behind Alaska, California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Wyoming.
The average starting teacher salary for the country that year was $36,141.
But that’s only the starting salary, which can be an unreliable indicator of the overall pay structure in a school system. How high salaries go — and how quickly they climb — is subject to a number of factors discussed below. First, some context.
How did Pennsylvania get into the Top 10?
Teachers in Southern and Western states tend to make less than teachers in the Northeast and Midwest. A primary reason is those Sun Belt teachers generally do not have the same right to collectively bargain that teachers around here do.
Teachers in Pennsylvania were the first to organize for stable, steady pay increases. In 1970, Act 195 gave Pennsylvania teachers the right to strike. Teachers’ willingness to strike in the decades to follow brought about rapid gains in teacher salaries and fringe benefits.
In the 1990s, some of teachers’ collective bargaining tools started to get stripped away and those gains stagnated. In 1992, Act 88 limited some of the leverage that teachers had due to the right to strike. Most important, perhaps, the act calls for mandatory arbitration and a return to work as soon as a strike threatens a school system’s ability to offer 180 days of instruction in a school year.
Thanks to another law, Act 46, teachers in Philadelphia have not been able to strike at all since 2001. That law created special rules for governing "distressed" districts such as Philadelphia and applied several limitations to the teachers’ contract.
So now, Pennsylvania ranks ninth for starting teacher salaries and about the same for an overall salary average of $63,521. Factor in the cost of living, and Pennsylvania teachers’ salaries might look even a little better — because some of the higher-salary states tend to be considerably more expensive to live in.
But any average salary figure obscures wide variation in teacher compensation among school districts and among regions of Pennsylvania.
Why does teacher pay differ?
School district funding cobbles together local, state and federal dollars. As a result, schools have wildly different amounts of money to spend on everything from supplies to staff. And staff salaries are the single biggest spending item.
That means average salaries for teachers in Pennsylvania can vary by more than $30,000 a year from district to district. Here’s a sampling of average teacher salaries in urban, suburban and rural districts around the state.
|School District||Average Teacher Salary||Urban, Suburban or Rural|
According to a study by Research for Action (RFA), average teacher compensation in Pennsylvania is highest in the state’s suburban school districts, followed by urban districts, with rural districts bringing up the rear.
Teacher pay is also highly variable by district and by teacher, due to a number of factors: cost of living, union contracts, the possibility of merit pay, and differences in teacher accreditation, to name a few.
Let’s explore some of the factors influencing teacher pay.
The first teachers’ union in the United States organized in Philadelphia in 1857. Since that time, teachers’ unions have bargained for contracts that would eliminate discriminatory pay differences, such as paying men more than women. Instead, teachers are paid based on factors like certification and experience.
Borrowing a model from industrial unions, this has led to a "step and lane" pay scale still used in teachers’ unions today. "Steps" are the expected pay increases over time, and "lanes" are the different tracks that teachers can advance on, depending on factors like what type of professional degree or teacher certifications they have. In a given year, some teachers can essentially get two pay bumps, one from the step (based on seniority) and one on the lane (based on graduate school credits).
Although this model is the norm, each district can interpret what those steps and lanes are. Some may give large pay increases for a master’s degree. Others may favor spreading out raises for decades, or do the exact opposite. In Philadelphia, teachers reach their maximum earning potential after only 10 years.
Performance pay: yea or nay?
If the step-and-lane system rewards teachers for their inputs — like their professional training — performance or merit pay ties money to outputs, such as test scores.
There are many different experimental models for merit pay. A 2012 study by RFA compared some of these different models. Looking at performance-based pay scales in Denver, Toledo, Washington, D.C., and in Minnesota, above-average outputs affected anywhere from 5 to 18 percent of teacher pay.
Types of merit pay tend to fall into two categories: bonuses on top of the base level step-and-lane pay increases, and alternative compensation plans, which use factors other than degrees and tenure to determine pay increases.
In 2010, Pittsburgh ushered in a new teachers’ contract with a bonus-based merit pay system, made possible by a $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Under that plan, teachers whose students quantifiably learn more than other teachers’ students can reach a salary of $100,000 in seven years.
If bonuses are determined based on merit, then it can turn out that not everyone will get a pay bump. Last year, the Pittsburgh plan came under fire as teachers and administrators debated where to set the bar for different levels of compensation. The teachers union balked at having 9 percent of its members fall in the lowest category of pay based on merit, while supporters of the plan pointed to resources for turning around teachers who were at that level.
This struggle points to a larger question in the debate about teacher merit pay: how to measure quality. Each school district may choose what factors to evaluate as a part of a teacher’s performance. With all of these experiments in merit pay, research on whether the practice affects student performance is mixed or inconclusive, although there are some takeaways.
"One especially salient factor," the RFA report says, "is whether incentives are structured around school-wide targets or on an individual educator’s contributions." School systems may choose to reward individual teachers, whole grades or entire schools based on their particular algorithm for judging success. There seems to be the strongest correlation between pay and academic achievement when groups of teachers — not individuals — receive the pay bumps for performance.
Test scores are also a much-debated factor in the merit-based models. Proponents say that the best teachers need to be identified and rewarded and that teaching staffs generally need to be held more accountable for how their students do.
Critics of using scores say that that approach is unreliable and unfair to teachers and compounds the problems of testing pressure and "teaching to the test." They also question how to evaluate teachers who don’t teach subjects measured on statewide tests.
Most rubrics use test scores, but to what degree differs. Many combine test scores with other measures such as classroom observations and student growth.
In the grab bag of variables, contracts and merit pay are only two factors.
In the words of the Public School Notebook’s Paul Socolar, teacher compensation is "a pretty crazy quilt system," with a number of local factors.
Many compensation models now adjust pay for hard-to-staff positions. These positions could be advanced science teachers or teachers with the chops to work in schools with harder-to-serve populations. In either case, the thinking is that the talent pool for these positions is small and teachers with these specialized skills deserve to be paid more.
How compensation accounts for health care and benefits is another wrinkle. In the past, health coverage and pensions were treated as an expected part of a teacher’s compensation. Teachers may pay for health care through deductibles or co-payments, but traditionally have not have to pay health insurance premiums.
Now that’s changing, as districts eye cost-sharing as a way of easing budget troubles. A survey of 402 school districts by the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) found that teachers in 344 of those districts contributed to their health care premiums as of 2012.
In Philadelphia, this key part of teacher compensation has become a sticking point.
In October 2014, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission abruptly cancelled its contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers — after two years of negotiations — and attempted to impose a health-care cost-sharing agreement.
Why not a statewide contract?
As school districts grapple with budget shortfalls and periodic labor unrest, calls periodically arise to craft a basic, statewide labor agreement for teachers. The focus often is on creating a single, statewide health coverage plan, to derive some cost saving from joint buying power. A bill to do this has been proposed in the General Assembly this term.
Other proponents would like to see some work rules and other provisions that sometimes become points of contention at the bargaining table standardized across the state.
Even those who favor a statewide pact, though, usually concede that salaries would need to be bargained on a local basis, given variations in cost of living and district resources.
What are other problems with the status quo?
Most teacher contracts give more job security and other preferences to teachers with the most seniority. In Philadelphia, at least, as Dale Mezzacappa of the Public School Notebook notes, this sets up a situation where "the greenest inexperienced people wind up in the toughest schools," because veteran teachers sometimes use seniority to avoid those tough assignments.
Another problem stems from inadequate and inequitable funding among school systems, which is explored elsewhere in Multiple Choices. Schools where teachers face the toughest challenges — high percentages of students from impoverished homes, more special education and English-as-a-second-language students, more violent school climates — tend to have fewer resources and to pay less.
Teachers, like other well-educated workers, are able to vote with their feet, to go where pay and working conditions are the best. So, according to Donna Cooper, CEO of Public Citizens for Children & Youth, to get a stronger teacher workforce "you’ve got to have your economic incentives right."
About this series: Multiple Choices is a collaboration between Keystone Crossroads and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent, nonprofit source of education news. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia.
Look for new installments of Multiple Choices every week for the rest of the spring, as the General Assembly reviews Gov. Wolf’s ambitious school funding and tax plan.