Beyond Averages: Exploring Why Teacher Salaries Vary (and Do Not Vary) in Kentucky
Within Kentucky school districts, teacher salaries vary in predictable and transparent ways. Teacher education levels and years of experience predict salaries – by design (from Kentucky state statutes) and through decisions (from school board members in local districts). Over the past 20 years, numerous recommendations have called for salaries to vary based on additional factors, but these recommendations have so far not translated into substantial policy changes at the local level.
Kentucky law mandates that all school districts establish a minimum salary schedule based on teacher education and experience. It explicitly ties schedules to Kentucky’s certification rank system, which differentiates teachers into three ranks (Rank I, II, and III) based on their graduate degrees and credits. The system includes two emergency certification ranks (Ranks IV and V) differentiated by college credit hours. The statute also ties the schedule to five steps that reflect bands of years of experience: 0-3, 4-9, 10-14, 15-19, and 20 and over (KRS 157.390). Each year, the Kentucky Department of Education publishes a minimum certified salary schedule based on this structure.
Kentucky employs one widespread policy strategy that goes beyond this traditional step-and-lane system. Kentucky law requires a $2,000 increase in base pay for all teachers who have attained National Board certification (KRS 157.395). (The state reimburses districts for this additional compensation through the state’s SEEK K-12 funding formula.)
With these salary amounts set as a floor, each school board establishes its own district single salary schedule. These are also called “step-and-lane” schedules. Most school districts have schedules that include a “step” increase for each year of experience, and most include annual step increases beyond 20 years. Some schedules also include an additional “lane” beyond a Rank I, for teachers with a doctoral degree.
The graph below shows how district-level decisions about salary schedules can play out for teachers of various education and experience levels. Clearly, the pattern differs for those in rural districts versus urban districts!
Teacher Salary – Variation by Education and Experience, Selected Districts, 2018-19
For the most part, within in any district, teachers who have the same education and experience have the same salary. Teachers may, however, receive supplemental pay for special duties on top of their teaching responsibilities, such as serving as a department chair, mentoring, or sponsoring an athletic team or non-athletic extracurricular activity.
Across the nation, school districts have used strategies to go beyond the traditional salary schedule, offering strategic compensation for teachers based on their characteristics or the characteristics of the school in which they teach. These strategies respond to problems such as finding qualified candidates to fill vacancies, damaging teacher turnover, and persistent inequities across schools. These may be time-limited bonuses or increases to base pay. These characteristics may include the following:
- New teacher (e.g. recruitment or signing bonuses)
- Subject matter expertise (e.g. mathematics or Spanish)
- Expertise in special student populations (e.g. special education, English learners)
- Performance/demonstrated effectiveness (e.g. selective retention bonuses for teachers with highest evaluation scores)
- Professional advancement along with new responsibilities (e.g. “multi-classroom leaders” in Opportunity Culture schools or “expert teacher stage” in Washington DC’s LIFT and Impact system)
- Commitment to work in a school with certain performance, student demographics, or location (e.g. low-performing, high-poverty, or remote rural)
Kentucky has been studying these ideas for 20 years. A statewide Task Force on Teacher Quality began working in February 1999 and published its final report in June 2000. The task force recommended additional, differentiated compensation for teachers for a variety of factors.
In 2002, the Kentucky General Assembly approved legislation that allows school districts to establish plans to provide differentiated compensation for teachers in addition to the salary schedule (KRS 157.075). The statute requires these plans to tackle recruitment and retention of teachers in critical shortage areas, reduce emergency certifications, incentivize highly-skilled teachers to serve in challenging assignments or hard-to-fill positions, provide career advancement opportunities for teachers, or reward teachers for increasing skills, knowledge, or instructional leadership.
At the time, state officials anticipated that the Kentucky Department of Education would oversee a competitive grant program to incentivize five districts to establish differentiated compensation plans. A state administrative regulation (702 KAR 3:310) outlines the factors that districts can use to differentiate pay, the process they should follow to finalize plans, and procedures for the state grant program. Factors include teacher individual performance, individual skills, knowledge, school-based performance, multiple measures of student performance including portfolios of student work, assignment (school, subject area, group of students, or to diversity staffing at a school), or credit for professional nonteaching experience or military service.
In December 2007, a task force convened by the Prichard Committee that included the Education Professional Standards Board, Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky Education Association, Kentucky Education Cabinet, and Kentucky School Boards Association, issued a report, “Using Teacher Compensation to Support Differentiated Teacher Roles and Responsibilities”. The task force made detailed recommendations to differentiate compensation for teacher leaders, to incentivize high-quality teachers to work with high-need schools and students, to incentivize highly qualified teachers in shortage subjects, and to reward teachers with high levels of instructional expertise. These recommendations were also endorsed by the Prichard Committee’s Team on Teacher Effectiveness in its December 2013 report.
Legislation from the 2018 General Assembly, SB 152, specifically allowed districts to add supplementary pay for teachers in schools identified as Comprehensive Support and Improvement, or Targeted Support and Improvement (KRS 157.390).
Designing, and successfully carrying out, differentiated salary systems for teachers based on factors beyond education and experience requires decision-makers at the local level to weigh a variety of policy goals and implementation considerations. The current system offers predictability and transparency. A more differentiated system offers flexibility to meet specific needs or goals. Over the last 20 years, several districts across the nation have experienced what it takes to meaningfully differentiate teacher salaries, including incentivizing highly skilled teachers to take on additional responsibilities in schools and with students who need to make the fastest progress. Commitment from leadership, broad buy-in, clear data to identify shifts in supply and demand, implementation expertise, and sustainable funding make all the difference in moving from recommendation to action to impact.