Give That Unicorn A Raise

Ed Tech Salary and Hiring Practices Must Improve
Aug 24, 2016

This summer, Massachusetts became the first state to bar employers from compelling job applicants to share prior salary information. This groundbreaking law has been heralded as a step toward closing the gender pay gap. See this recent New York Times article.

Now, pay inequality between the two genders is certainly a worthy cause to address, but anyone underpaid is a victim — male or female. As the New York Times article suggests, many employers don’t intend to discriminate. However, by asking for current salary information, employers undervalue and underpay individuals already underpaid.

In computer science, we call this a recursive loop. Prior low wages beget future low wages, preventing a worker from breaking out of a vicious cycle.

Feudalism in education

But we need to dig deeper. What other forces artificially cap salaries? Three short stories from the education sector all point to the same root cause.

As a department manager, I was instructed to ascertain a candidate’s current salary before offering the job. My boss was like the poker player who used the check-raise, forcing an opponent to make the first move blind before deciding how much money to risk. This maneuvering allowed the school to tender an offer that looked like a raise, when really it was just a few dollars more than the candidate’s current salary. Notably, if the candidate’s current salary was low, we made a lower offer than we would have otherwise made.

As an applicant, I recall a day I was offered a senior technology director job. The conversation turned almost immediately to my current income. “Is that really what you make? It might be hard to pay much more than that without disrupting the salary balance among the other members of the team.” That statement made me feel as if my worth to the school had nothing to do with the skills or talents I had acquired as a technology leader.

As a recruiter, I worked with a school that chose a candidate from a different industry. Had that candidate worked in a peer school, we would have offered much less. However, we had to match the candidate’s comparatively higher current salary because we knew the candidate would not leave for lower pay. Yet the school wouldn’t go a dollar above the match. Awkwardness ensued.

All of these stories reveal basic human nature: Buyers do not want to overpay. But they actually belie a more crippling characteristic of the education industry — the way salaries are constructed. For some reason, schools hold to the archaic notion of hierarchy that borders on feudalism.

Salary systems: anchors in the water

A division director once declared that if the CTO were paid more than the academic leadership, that division head would be severely offended. Really? Is there an immutable rule of salary seniority: head, CFO, division directors (with upper school directors paid more because of the pressure of college placement), and then everyone else?

It is ironic that at a time when schools are trying to reimagine their entire mission and strategic plan, salary systems remain an anchor in the water — weighing down real change. It is doubly ironic that in some markets, recruiting for a qualified technology director is more difficult than hiring a qualified division director, yet that salary anchor still does not budge.

Looking for unicorns

Recently, I talked with a school in a rural area with a high cost of living. The school is launching a major STEM program this fall. As late as this summer, the school’s leaders sought someone with curriculum development skills and teaching experience in computer science, robotics, engineering, and technology. In addition, this person would support faculty technology integration and design from scratch the long-term STEM plan. The school pegged the ideal offer at $45,000; $55,000 was the absolute max because the school’s teacher salary scale topped out at $60,000. Yes, the administrator leading this search admitted to be looking for a unicorn.

Meanwhile, a CTO from another school has been asked to teach coding this year because a math teacher suddenly quit. The school’s only technology teacher must slide over to math because there’s no way to hire a qualified STEM teacher this late in the summer. This school knows not to bother finding its unicorn.

Finally, a school with a new Mandarin immersion program has its faculty pay scale set in stone and tied to teacher seniority. Never mind that the number of qualified and interested Mandarin immersion teachers in its geographical region is lower than for any other curricular subject. The end result last year was a hiring disaster; the unicorn lasted less than four months before being reassigned and later dismissed, forcing two classes to consolidate.

The stories go on and on.

Three suggestions for every school

To deal with these employment challenges, I’m proposing three ideas for every school to consider. Serious challenges sometimes require more than incremental solutions.

1. Divorce the disciplines

Dispense with the one-size-fits-all salary model. At an administrator level, the CTO in a tech hub ought to be the third or even second-highest paid employee. CFOs are already in a class by themselves; so, too, should the leading technology administrator.

At the faculty level, I see no compelling reason to pay all teachers equally regardless of discipline. Maintaining faculty unity seems like a cover. Do colleges pay all athletic coaches equally? No, because certain teams and programs are considered more valuable to those schools, harder for which to recruit coaches, or both.

I find it disingenuous for a school to launch a major curriculum revamp around STEM, maker, and design, and then pay its core technology and science teachers little or nothing more than other subject teachers. Every time I hear the term “SHTEAM,” I shake my head. Heaven forbid that we redefine an academic program into disparate segments and make radical changes to each segment — from curriculum to salary. If those changes within STEM fail, maybe Humanities and Art (HA) can enjoy the last laugh.

2. Eliminate annual employment contracts

Nothing is funny about annual employment contracts at schools, which shackle emerging leaders. A narrow, artificial window opens between January and March when teachers and administrators are allegedly unshackled to seek new jobs — but even then many heads of school won’t talk to a candidate without permission from the current school. A CFO once told me that after informing the head of school about a desire to explore other opportunities, the head replied, “Well, I guess that means you won’t be coming back next year.”

Rising stars need to be able to look around and move freely. If they get another offer in June, maybe their current school needs to counteroffer or figure out what drove that person away. If a teacher leaves in August, emergency options are always available. Perhaps an administrator fills in (a good reason to get back into the classroom), or two classes consolidate (a prime time to roll out student-directed learning). And a teacher who makes a habit of untimely exits has no business being hired by a subsequent school.

3. Stop internal salary comparisons

Trustees understand the need to look externally for CEO salary comparisons because the CEO has no peers within the organization. Yet, for some reason, relying on market analysis all but vanishes as you move down the totem pole. Can you imagine if a shortstop on a baseball team were in a dispute with ownership over salary, and the arbitrator could only analyze salaries of other players on the same team? That methodology would be dismissed as nonsensical and unfair.

When a school hires a new teacher or administrator, the proposed salary should be compared with what the market is currently paying for that position. If the position is in high demand, then offer the candidate more! Administrators sadly have an aversion to disrupting the supposed harmony known as seniority pay. True, nobody wants to disgruntle employees and trigger constant turnover, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard administrators secretly celebrate every time an overpaid, longtime employee finally departs.

Technology salary survey

To support a true market analysis of technology salaries in schools, Ed Tech Recruiting has just launched an anonymous salary survey for technology professionals working in educational institutions. The results will be published in November.

The goal is simple: Help schools and applicants better understand the marketplace of compensation packages for technology positions in schools. Rather than continually looking internally for salary comparisons, or making wild extrapolations based on anecdotal data, schools and applicants will have an analytical tool aligned with the industry.

  • School or district technology professionals, please take the survey.
  • Everyone else, please share the link below with colleagues in your peer network.

Together, we can figure out just how much each of our unicorns is worth, and in some cases, perhaps give them a much-deserved and long overdue raise.