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Per Student Pay Scale for Teachers: The Independent Instructor Model

ESL Teacher Dave
Online English Teacher For Hire

The boom in online teaching/tutoring worldwide has become a billion-dollar industry and is projected to reach over $20 billion by 2030. There are no borders when it comes to teaching online. Language, Mathematics, Science, Art teachers, etc. from the USA and elsewhere instruct students from various geographical corners of the globe. For example, an online company in China hired tens of thousands of English-speaking teachers (yes, at one point they had over 30,000 foreign hires in 2020) to offer after-school English tutoring to hundreds of thousands of Chinese students whose parents could pay for it. VIPKID hired only those with bachelor's degrees who didn't necessarily have to be certified to teach English as long as they passed the test. They paid teachers up to $22 an hour as independent contractors to teach a canned, yet fun curriculum in 1 on 1 instruction. Of course, since the lessons took place after school and into the evening in China, teachers in the USA had to wake up early to prepare for the 4 am - 10 am time slots.

Although paid less than a traditional classroom teacher, the teacher-tutors could set their own availability. They were encouraged to have fun and be enthusiastic with their young Chinese learners. With the preconceived and sequential curricula, teachers didn't have to spend time on lesson planning. Many teachers who originally double-dipped by teaching a couple of hours with VIPKID early mornings followed by a full day of teaching in their regular classrooms in the USA quit their day jobs to work online to maximum capacity (six hours daily). It was a good model for a married teacher whose spouse worked full-time. They could teach until 10 am and have the rest of the day free to attend to their own children's needs while still having time to pursue their interests. There weren't any discipline problems while teaching individual Chinese students as opposed to the taxing classroom management issues they encountered daily in their American classrooms of 20-30 students. For many, the trade-off of less pay for more independence with a work-at-home job was well worth it.

Until late 2021, it was a good gig for good teachers because good teachers were rewarded with more students in the parental-choice-of-teacher world that VIPKID offered. If you delivered effective and enthusiastic lessons, students and their parents were more likely to give you a five-star rating. Five stars begets more students. When parents searched for teachers in the network, they were looking for instructors with high ratings. Mothers shared the names of good teachers with other parents at their weekly mahjong games. Thus, the most effective teachers were given the highest ratings and the number of their student followers grew. Teachers who put their heart and soul into their lessons would naturally acquire more students than those who simply ran through the motions.

Since online teachers are paid per student, acquiring more students equates to a higher paycheck. Effort is rewarded and motivation to provide effective instruction increases. This system of per-student pay represents a radical shift over traditional schools that place teachers on a salary schedule based primarily on years of service. In traditional schools, superior teachers are remunerated at the same rate as colleagues who put less effort into their vocation.


If the traditional pay scale model by years of experience were to shift to a per-student model, what would be the reaction? Highly effective teachers might be ecstatic. They would do as they always do and more students would be eager to join their class. It's akin to the ancient model where students sought after a specific teacher, rather than being assigned to a teacher by a centralized planning office. Outstanding teachers would accept as many students as they could manage and their remuneration would reflect their effectiveness. On the other hand, mediocre teachers would lose students and would thus be incentivized to increase their effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers' unions would likely cry foul at the "injustice of a system that pits teachers against teachers." If that were to be the real case, our focus would be lost, spending more time reflecting on teachers rather than where we should be focusing -- on the quality of classroom instruction for each student.

Class size does matter, although perhaps not to the extent that research suggested in the last decades concerning the effectiveness of small class sizes. Highly qualified teachers and those engaged in reflective practice, who bring the joy of teaching into their classrooms can often demonstrate high levels of achievement even with larger classes. Class sizes of 10-15 students may have made a positive impact (or not) but it certainly bloated school budgets, causing districts to inflate their expenditures for staff. What if, rather, we allowed teachers to continue adding students to their classes to the point of effectiveness saturation? Teachers should know their limits. After all, the emotional well-being of the teacher in the classroom is paramount. It just seems right that teachers who can handle a greater number of students would be remunerated per capita and thus raise their salary. Teachers having a difficult time managing larger classes can reduce the number of students in their classrooms until they reach a level of stability where they are ready to add more pupils.

VIPKID Teacher Dave
"Let me ponder the appropriate feedback."


According to the National Education Association, the average per-pupil expenditure by state for the 2022-23 school year was $16,281. New York led with $30,867 per student. Idaho was lowest at $9,599. The national average public school teaching salary was $69,544. California led with $95,160 while West Virginia was last at $52,870.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2023) the majority of expenditures in public school funding goes to teachers' salaries, at just under 60 percent. Benefits for teachers, such as health insurance, pensions, etc. reached over 20 percent. Thus, most funds for educating schoolchildren go to the teachers, rather than equipment and materials, as should be. The teacher, regardless of anything else a school district pays for, is the primary mover for enhancing achievement in the classroom. The remaining 20 percent goes to administrative, maintenance costs, curricular materials, and other ancillary costs. Concerning these numbers, let us see how the per-pupil salary model could be configured to motivate teachers during their professional careers.

Currently, the average salary for a teacher in New York is $90,000 annually while yearly per-pupil funding stands at $30,000. The average class size in the state stands at 24 students. This calculates to per-student pay of $3,750, which leaves over $25,000 for other costs. Teachers in NY are paid about 5 percent of per-pupil funding, nowhere near the 60 percent nationally. That seems top-heavy for administrative and maintenance costs. If teachers in New York were to be paid 60 percent of the per-pupil costs, that would mean teachers would receive $18,000 per student. In a classroom of 20 students, a teacher there would earn $360,000 a year. We'd have to dig deep to understand the school funding model in New and that would necessitate writing another article. I suspect that the cost of teachers' benefits in New York may be the highest in the nation. Still, imagining teachers' salaries on a per-student scale has great possibilities of rewarding professional educators for jobs well done.

Yet, no two students are alike. Some take more effort to educate than others. What about the difficult-to-teach students? Students who misbehave, or have simply not learned the way to conduct themselves in a classroom of 20+ other students increase the workload of teachers. Therefore, in this model of a per-student pay scale for teachers, students would need to be categorized. Yes, we already have categories for students, such as those in special education classes, those on an IEP, etc. Special education students are often placed with teachers in classrooms with fewer students. Thus, such students could be placed at a 1.5 pay ratio for teachers. For example, let's say that students in traditional classrooms earn teachers $4K per student. A teacher who can effectively manage and teach a class of 20 students would earn $80K. With SPED students, teachers may earn $6K per student. Multiply this number by a classroom of 15 special education students and the teacher would earn the same amount.

As shown, the per-student model for teacher salaries has the potential to greatly reward teachers over and above the current model that pays teachers solely on years of experience and educational attainment without further incentives. No doubt this per-student pay model will raise the quality of instruction in the classroom as teachers will be itching to improve their craft and invite more students to learn from them. Critics will raise concerns, of course, aiming to protect the status quo. Effective teachers will happily accept additional students into their classrooms while inexperienced and low-functioning teachers can increase their effectiveness first with smaller class sizes and look forward to adding students, as well as compensation in the coming semesters.

Dr. Dave received his PhD from The Catholic University of America in Catholic School Leadership/Policy Studies. He is a school trainer for the Center for Teaching Effectiveness and is a proponent of peer observation networks for teachers. More information can be found at

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