If you were to listen to the TV and movie industry, you'd be convinced that two-dimensional content belongs in a museum next to 35mm film and cassette tapes. Soon we'll all be wearing funny glasses in our living rooms, watching Avatar in 3D. Three is more than two, so 3D must be better than 2D, right?
The vast majority of teacher salary schedules are two-dimensional, with experience on the vertical axis and credit hours on the horizontal axis. It's a simple system, and there are some good reasons that teachers unions have fought to keep them, namely the inability for an employer using such a salary system to discriminate against females and minorities doing the same work with similar qualifications. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say 2D salary schedules are fair; we hold on to them because they are familiar, easy to use, and teachers accept them as part of their employment. Merit pay might be no more or less fair than a 2D salary schedule, but salary schedules are an unfairness most teachers can agree upon.
Why 2D? Why not 1D? Why not 3D?
So why are our salary schedules two-dimensional, and why did we choose experience and education as the two dimensions? Well, a one-dimensional system is unnecessarily limited; it suggests that only one variable determines the quality of a teacher, and few of us like being told that only one thing about us matters. So why not three dimensions? I think we don't have 3D or higher-dimensional salary schedules because we can't print them in rows and columns on a piece of paper. You can't tell me that years of service and credits earned are the only two objective measures worthy of the salary schedule. I'm currently earning three credit hours for a graduate-level class in the assessment of math and science. If I went back to teaching mathematics now, those three hours would count the same as my three hours in cartography.
Hypothetically, let's ponder a third dimension: student load. The number of students a teacher sees daily impacts the sheer quantity of work most teachers have to do, so why not reward them for it? (Remember, I'm not looking for a perfect measure here - just something that makes at least as much sense as graduate credit hours.) We'd have to determine how and when the number of students in a teacher's class is counted, but as student numbers are tied to school funding, there shouldn't be any budget-busting surprises here. But now we're beyond 2D, and our rows and columns might best give way to a formula. Imagine a school where teacher salaries range between $30,000 and $50,000. Our formula might look like this:
Salary = $25,000 + ($750 * Years) + ($100 * Credits) + ($50 * Students)
Under this formula, a brand-new teacher with no graduate credits and 120 students would make $31,000. A veteran teacher with 20 years of experience, 45 graduate credits, and 120 students would make $50,500. How'd I pick the $750, $100, and $50 amounts? Pretty arbitrarily, just as districts now negotiate for the size of steps in their 2D salary schedules.
Should Salary Growth Be Linear Along All Axes?
Here's where things get controversial. Which teacher is bound to show more growth and improvement: the one moving from year 2 to year 3, or the one moving from year 16 to year 17? Should more growth mean a greater increase in pay? Should all credit hours be counted equally? Consider this formula:
Salary = $25,000 + (4000*sqrt(Years)) + ($20 * Credits + $20 * Credits Specific to Current Teaching Assignment + $60 * Credits Earned in Last 3 Years) + ($50 * Students)
Our brand-new teacher with no credits and 120 students still makes $31,000, and our veteran with 20 years of experience, 45 graduate credits (let's say 30 are specific to their current assignment and 3 were taken in the past 3 years), and 120 students makes $50,568.54. Like I've said, I'm picking these figures rather arbitrarily to provoke some thought, and further judgement of the formula is left as an exercise to the reader.
If you could pick a third (or fourth, or fifth) variable to take us beyond a two-dimensional salary schedule, what would it be?