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Bonuses for Board-Certified Teachers Do Not Address Basic Problems with Teacher Pay

by Michael Podgursky
May / June 2001


Nearly all public school teachers are paid according to rigid single salary schedules that base teachers' pay on years of experience and graduate credits. These single salary schedules cause three problems. First, they do not allow differentials by field. Many districts are experiencing teacher shortages in mathematics, science, and special education. A more flexible, market-based system of pay would enable teachers in these shortage fields to earn more than other teachers. Second, the single salary schedules suppress differentials by schools within the same district. In urban districts, teachers in the toughest and most challenging schools earn the same pay as teachers in more desirable schools. As a consequence, teachers in the former use their seniority to transfer to the latter or they simply quit. Either way, the poorest children get the least-experienced teachers. Finally, the single salary schedules do not differentiate by teacher effectiveness or effort. An outstanding and hardworking teacher earns the same pay as a burned-out and ineffective teacher who has the same experience and graduate credit.

The problems of the single salary schedules have become increasingly obvious to education policymakers and legislators. The National Education Association and many American Federation of Teachers locals, however, are strongly opposed to merit or market-based pay differentials. Bonuses for national board–certified teachers are a union-palatable compromise. All teachers in the bargaining unit can, in principle, become "accomplished" national board–certified teachers.

However, bonuses for national board–certified teachers address none of the structural problems of the single salary schedules. They do not deal with field differentials. Indeed, they may exacerbate them. The majority of national board teachers are in the generalist categories. Although mathematics teachers comprise 7.8 percent of public school teachers, they accounted for only 7.3 percent of 4727, or approximately 345, teachers who were newly certified last year. In other words, state national board salary bonuses are going to flow disproportionately away from a field in which teacher shortages exist.

What about teachers who are more effective? In spite of claims by the National Board for Professional Teacher Standards, no reliable evidence indicates that the students of national board–certified teachers learn more than students of other teachers when student learning is measured by a state assessment or by a standardized examination. The validity studies underlying the development of the national board standards and scoring rubrics are based on the opinions of practicing teachers and education school faculty as to what an "accomplished" teacher should know and do, not on objective measures of student achievement.

Finally, bonuses for national board–certified teachers are likely to exacerbate gaps between schools in higher and lower socioeconomic neighborhoods within and between districts. Since the less-experienced teachers within a district tend to be in the low-socioeconomic-neighborhood schools, national board teacher bonuses will tend to widen the resource and pay gap. And although no systematic data exist, teachers in suburban districts may be the disproportionate beneficiaries of national board bonuses. In sum, bonuses for national board teachers address none of the problems of the single salary schedules and may exacerbate them. The best approach for legislatures and state education policymakers is to let national board certification, or any other education credential, pass the market test. School districts should be held accountable for gains in students' achievement, and they should decide whether to spend $2300 for board certification and structure pay incentives. If board certification is really worth $2300, schools will buy it. If national board teachers are actually more productive, districts will pay them more.

Mathematics teachers, in particular, ought to appreciate the problems of the single salary schedules. In a more flexible, market-based pay system, their pay would be higher. This result is evident in private schools, and preliminary research suggests the same outcome in charter schools. Forcing teachers in shortage fields to jump through expensive, time-consuming, and academically problematic national board hoops to obtain pay increases is likely to increase teacher shortages.


Podgursky, Michael. "Accomplished Teacher Validity Study." Education Matters (April 2001): forthcoming.


Michael Podgursky is a professor of economics and department chair at the University of Missouri—Columbia. His research focuses on teacher labor markets. Many of his articles and papers may be downloaded from his Web site:



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