Career Ladders

For several decades, school districts have made efforts to differentiate the work of teachers.[i] In the 1980s, almost all states had expressed interest in, proposed, or launched some form of career ladder system, but many were challenged in obtaining funding. Professional Learning Communities became popular in the 1990s and helped to enhance the careers of teachers. The heightened accountability reforms in the 2000s created new demands for teaching capacity increased the need to differentiate teachers. As the education landscape and the face of teaching change, it is increasingly important to identify ways for teachers to develop in their careers and expand leadership opportunities.

Career ladders provide support and incentives for teachers to develop skills and take on new roles and responsibilities.[ii] Rather than focusing simply on improving test scores, career ladders allow teacher to assume meaningful leadership roles in the district and in the profession. Teachers can be incentivized by opportunities to contribute to their school and students in new ways, based on the needs of the district. Johnson, Kraft, & Papay suggest that teachers are less motivated by pay than they are by working conditions such as school culture, strong leadership, and collegiality with other teachers.[iii]

High performing countries have comprehensive human resources systems that help create a strong teaching force through selecting, training, compensating, and developing teachers.[iv] Career development is just one aspect of this system. In Singapore, teachers are assessed annually during their first three years of practice and then placed in a career path that is best suited to their skills and interests. The three pathways in Singapore are master teachers, curriculum or research specialist, and school leader. Each pathway has its own salary scale and provides teachers with targeted training and development.

In recent years, several school districts have worked with their unions to develop strong teacher career ladder systems. Following are three examples.

  •      Austin, TX[v]: The Austin Independent School District, Education Austin, and the AFT worked together to develop a comprehensive professional pathways system that includes multiple measures. The compensation system includes years of service, leadership, and individualized professional development that is tied back to the appraisal to meet individual needs as indicated via assessments.
  •      Baltimore, MD[vi]: Baltimore Public Schools included in its 2007 teacher contract a “self-paced learning” plan where teachers earn achievement units through professional development and annual evaluations. The system is comprised of four career pathways that focus on mastery of instruction: Standard, Professional, Model and Lead. Peer reviews help to guide movement from one pathway to another.
  •      New Haven, CT[vii]: New Haven teachers agreed to a contract in 2009 that connected compensation to its teacher evaluation system. Raises can be earned through completed professional development, and teachers with higher evaluation scores will be offered leadership positions. Teachers also receive additional compensation for working in hard-to-serve schools.


[i] Natale, C., Gaddis, L., Bassett, K., & McKnight, K. (2013). Creating Sustainable Teacher Career Pathways: A 21st Century Imperative, a joint publication of Pearson & National Network of State Teachers of the Year,

[ii] American Federation of Teachers, Career Ladders,

[iii] Susan Moore Johnson, Matthew A. Kraft & John P. Papay, How Context Matters in High-Need Schools: The Effects of Teachers’ Working Conditions on Their Professional Satisfaction and Their Students’ Achievement, Teachers College Record, 2012.

[iv] OECD (2011). Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,