Just how much is a teacher worth? Ask this question in education policy circles, and you’re sure to generate lots of opinion, but few easy answers. When it comes to compensating teachers, political leaders are hard-pressed to bridge the gap between unfettered generosity and budgetary reality. This task is complicated by the fact that accurate, unbiased feedback on teacher pay is generally difficult to come by.
Former Governor Hunt and our current Governor Easley both look to the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual study of teacher salaries as the gold standard for pay information. Not surprisingly, the NEA ranks North Carolina’s teacher salaries well below the national average. Yet the data fail to adjust salary rankings for cost of living, a seemingly obvious omission. This means differences between states aren’t particularly meaningful and are more of an “apples to oranges” comparison – a fact acknowledged by the NEA but lost in the media.
Our state legislature has been quick to follow gubernatorial directives, hiking teacher salaries at regular intervals. In 2005, the General Assembly awarded teachers an average four percent increase; last year, teacher pay went up an additional eight percent. Governor Easley proposed another three percent increase for each of the next two years in his State of the State speech this week; if implemented, this increase would bump pay up 18 percent overall since 2005.
But is our “sky’s the limit” approach to teacher compensation working to improve educational outcomes? Not if you consider that graduation rates are stalled around 60 percent, and teacher shortages continue to plague our state. Fortunately, two recently released reports ought to interject some fresh voices into the ongoing debate over teacher pay.
In January, the Manhattan Institute released “How Much Are Public School Teachers Paid?”. Written by nationally known researcher Jay Greene and his colleague Marcus Winters, this report compiles data (collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) on the hourly wages of teachers, nationwide and in a number of metropolitan areas. Comparing teachers’ hourly rate to that of workers in similar professions, Greene and Winters found that the average public school teacher is paid “36 percent more per hour than the average non-sales white-collar worker and 11 percent more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.”
Just last week, the John Locke Foundation released “Learning About Teacher Pay,” providing the real facts on teacher salaries in North Carolina. Written by education policy analyst Terry Stoops, this report puts the lie to the notion that North Carolina teachers are woefully underpaid. After adjusting for several variables, the report shows that our state’s teacher pay ranks 19th in the country, $2,733 more than the national average.
North Carolina teachers also fare well when compared to instructors in other geographically proximate states. According to statistics from the nonprofit Southern Regional Board of Education, North Carolina pays teachers more than 12 states in the southern region: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. In fact, only three states pay more than we do: Delaware, Maryland, and Georgia.
Where do we go from here? It’s time to alter our compensation formula, throwing teacher performance into the mix. Yes, the state ought to increase teacher salaries according to inflation, but we should also base pay scales on merit, or classroom performance. Doing so would surely enhance accountability and reward hard-working teachers. And guess what? It just might improve our schools.