There are three types of pay increases that make up the majority of educator salaries in the United States. They are “steps,” COLA (cost-of-living adjustment), and increases “on the base” other than COLA that reflect community recognition of the value of the work. (We’ll touch briefly on lanes as well).
Steps are what make teaching into a career and not just a short-term job for those that are early on in their careers. Without steps few people would want to stay in teaching for any length of time. Historically steps were a way to make educators provide a discount early in their career, but not later. Would someone with 20 years experience and a masters degree take a job that pays $50,000 per year?
Lanes are another compensation for experience. Lanes are the way that educators are compensated for their educational background: bachelors, masters, doctorate.
The other two ways that salaries are adjusted are responses to a changing social and economic context, and to account for inflation.
Sometimes an increase on each salary, which appears in a “salary schedule” table as an increase in every “cell,” is described as a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) in recognition of the impact of inflation. Without such increases, an educator would be taking a pay cut because the value of the dollar is decreasing. Nobody would expect a teacher to work for a starting salary today that is the same as a starting salary from 20 years ago or even five years ago. Who would take a teaching job that had a starting salary of $36,000, particularly in this region where the cost of living is as high as it is??
Another reason our salaries have increased is that working people have demanded that their work be respected. Our work as educators becomes more valued by society and as a result the compensation system has become more fair.
To summarize, steps are salary increases to pay for experience while COLA and other raises are to keep the profession current with today’s salaries and the value of the work. People often confuse “steps” with “increases on the base” of the salaries at every step. Without both, teaching does not continue as a respected profession.