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We've long advocated giving teachers larger salary increases at the beginning of their careers rather than at the end. With a "front-loaded" salary schedule, new teachers reap the financial rewards for the significant gains in effectiveness that, on average, they make in their first years in the classroom. Front-loading makes the teaching profession more attractive to talented people coming out of college and raises teachers' lifetime earnings.

It would certainly make sense that students would also benefit from this type of strategic talent management, but research on whether this is in fact the case has been limited, until now. Jason Grissom and Katherine Strunk conducted an in-depth examination of the connection between salary schedules and student achievement in 4,500 school districts. Their conclusion: front-loading pay is indeed correlated with greater student learning.

The entire paper is constructed around a snapshot of a single school-year (1999-2000) for which Grissom and Strunk have data both on how teachers are paid and the percentages of students meeting "cut-points" (i.e., "proficient," "basic," etc.) on state tests. On the teacher side, they control for differences in cost of living in various districts; on the student side, they control for the difficulty of tests and demographic characteristics. In both elementary and middle school, the more districts front-loaded teacher salaries, the higher the rates of student achievement.

Looking deeper, Grissom and Strunk find that districts where collective bargaining is mandated are more likely to have back-loaded salary schedules. But regardless of how contracts are structured, the authors argue that districts could mimic front-loaded salary schedules through loan forgiveness programs, signing bonuses and retention bonuses. 

As Grissom and Strunk themselves take pains to point out, the nature of the dataset they use makes it impossible to determine whether these higher achievement levels are actually an effect of front-loading. Without some sort of "natural experiment," with a district shifting away from a back-loaded schedule, and examining many years worth of data, it isn't possible to tease out causation. But given the obvious HR benefits of front-loading and Grissom and Strunk's results, it's clear that more superindents should experiment with ways of paying novices more.

--Graham Drake

Jason A. Grissom and Katherine O. Strunk, "How Should School Districts Shape Teacher Salary Schedules? Linking School Performance to Pay Structure in Traditional Compensation Schemes," Educational Policy, August 2012 (Abstract)