Wednesday, February 5, 2019
By Jeff Mitchell, Head of School, Currey Ingram Academy, Brentwood, TN

For the 25 years I have served in independent schools, there has been a healthy conversation about the philosophy underpinning the determination of faculty salaries. Among NAIS schools you will find a potpourri of approaches, ranging from the ultra-egalitarian – a fixed scale that only varies based on experience and (perhaps) educational attainment, to an utterly free-market approach – salaries determined solely based on the unique circumstances of each contract scenario, where the unique circumstances upon which a salary is determined amount to the perceived merit and/or the perceived market value of the teacher. 

Most school heads have a philosophy and approach that is somewhere between the two bookends noted above. In this FastStats, the frequency with which independent schools use various criteria to determine faculty salaries is explored and portrayed.

To provide a foundation for what follows, it is useful to have the following information at hand.  Figure 1 shows the median salaries for NAIS and SAIS teachers over the past three years. The graph shows a modest upward trend for median salaries in both NAIS and SAIS schools, and a persistent gap between NAIS and SAIS schools, with NAIS teachers having higher median salaries – mainly due to the cost of living being higher in most other regions of the country as compared to the Southeast. See this previous FastStats article for a more thorough discussion about faculty salaries.   

It is also useful when looking at faculty salaries to have at least some sense of teacher tenure in our schools. Figure 2 shows that both NAIS and SAIS schools have a median experience level of 15 years and this has been consistent for many years. I would have expected that with the oft-cited mass retirement of Baby Boomers that the median years of experience might have dipped some in recent years – due to the disproportionately high retirement numbers of Boomer teachers – clearly this is not the case.

Figure 3 shows the percentage of schools that utilize a “salary scale”. Over the past 15 years, a consistent 50-60 percent of both NAIS and SAIS schools indicated that they do use a “scale” to determine faculty salaries. I thought this might have been a higher percentage. I am skeptical whether 40-50 percent of our schools really do not use a scale of any kind. I’m thinking that a good number of schools use scale-like approaches (i.e., “salary bands”) which really are versions of scales but with more latitude.  

Figure 4 shows whether or not schools take years of teaching experience into account when determining salaries. Interestingly, this has moved from essentially 100 percent 10-15 years ago to about 85 percent in 2018-2019. Again, it’s hard for me to imagine that 15 percent of NAIS and SAIS do not take experience in any way, shape or form into account but I would love to hear about how you did it if you are one of those schools.

Figure 5 represents whether the school explicitly recognizes teaching certification as a criterion for salary decisions. It seems about 40 percent of NAIS schools and closer to 50 percent of SAIS schools materially consider teaching certification. It might also be possible that many of the “no’s” for this response might actually come from schools where teaching certification is a requirement for all teachers. Thus, because it is a baseline assumption, it might not be a criterion that influences salary decisions. 

Figure 6 shows the percentage of schools that use educational attainment as a criterion for determining salaries. For the vast majority of schools this amounts to increases in salary based on attaining various college degrees, from BA’s to Ph.D’s. Perhaps, most interesting in this graph is that although the percentage of schools that take educational attainment into account remains high, there has been a noticeable drop in the past 15 years from near 100 percent to between 80 and 90 percent. I’m not sure why this would be the case, but the irony of schools not recognizing educational attainment is thought-provoking. 

Figure 7 represents teacher load: the overall number of students assigned to a particular teacher. Consistently over the past 15 years, about 60 percent of schools utilize teacher load as a variable in the salary equation. From my experience, there’s myriad ways that schools use teacher load as a multiplier. Most of the time, a baseline load is determined and if the teacher is above that number a multiplier of base salary is utilized.

It ought to be noted that teacher load is not necessarily the same as full-time equivalent (FTE). FTE refers to teaching a full-time equivalent number of classes, regardless of the number of students. Schools will often supplement salaries if a teacher is over the FTE for classes, e.g., teach six classes instead five.  

Finally, Figure 8 represents merit. Do schools use some measure of merit to influence salary decisions? Approximately 30 percent of NAIS schools and 40 percent of SAIS schools do so. The question of whether to use “merit” as a partial determinant of faculty salaries has been a “hot-button” topic for many schools. Although there’s lots to say on this, my main takeaway is that if your school incorporates “merit” into its decision-making process, ensure you have an excellent faculty evaluation system in place that is the basis of the merit decisions.

In summary, the data presented speak to modest but by no means significant changes in the process of determining faculty salaries over the past 15 years. Independent schools (like public schools) are still much more egalitarian in how they ultimately determine salaries than in the corporate sector. 

The analysis did reveal a small but consistent differences between NAIS and SAIS schools. SAIS schools, more so than NAIS schools, employ criteria such as certification, educational attainment, load and merit. Considering NAIS and SAIS schools use salary scales to the same degree (Figure 3) and use experience as a criterion for salary scales at a similar level (Figure 4), it can be concluded that, with more frequency, SAIS schools take the unique characteristics of its teachers into account when establishing faculty salaries. In short, a slightly more free-market-oriented approach. 

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this or any other FastStats article.

Jeff Mitchell
Head of School
Currey Ingram Academy
Brentwood, TN