Opinion: K-12 Update

Lindalyn’s Journal

November 3, 2005

Last week, Christmas came early to North Carolina teachers. Governor Easley, a proxy for Santa Claus if there ever was one, increased the salary of every teacher in the state by an extra $750 on an annualized basis. Teachers will receive this bonus starting with their November paychecks. This could add up to an $85 million price tag, for this year alone.

Easley’s pay hike is on top of the average 2.24 percent increase in the 2005-06 budget. Teachers will receive an additional average annual 5 percent salary increase over the next 3 years. Easley’s goal is to bring teacher salaries up to par with the “national average” within the next 4 years; by 2008-09, teachers in North Carolina will earn an average of $52,266.

North Carolinians have been quick to weigh in with their opinions. Some, like North Carolina Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, have dubbed Easley’s initiative yet “more money for a failing system.” Others, like Dana Cope, Executive Director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) bemoan the fact that Easley’s largesse excludes other state employees. Even a Charlotte Observer editorial embracing Easley’s idea as a “smart way to start,” criticized his plan’s inability to provide for high-poverty schools, or shortages of math and science teachers.

While Easley’s initiative undoubtedly provided him and his cohorts with a compelling photo opportunity, will it have any measurable impact on the quality of our schools?

The reality is that an across-the board pay raise is based on faulty logic: that more money, thrown at teachers in a completely undifferentiated way, will improve our schools. Under such a plan, effective teachers have little incentive to continue bolstering student achievement. And mediocre and ineffective teachers are rewarded regardless of their ineptitude. Research shows that a teacher’s knowledge and skills are the most important in-school factors for learning, meaning our policies ought to attract and retain the best and the brightest to teach our children.

Moreover, an analysis by the John Locke Foundation reveals that teacher salaries in North Carolina are actually in pretty good shape. According to this report, the state already ranks 11th in the nation for average teacher pay, when properly measured (reflecting our lower cost of living and less experienced teacher workforce) − exceeding the national average by $1,600.

Schools across the country are putting the lie to the notion that indiscriminate spending sends scores through the roof. Daniel Henninger, writing in the Wall Street Journal, praises the example set by Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This innovative school added individual teacher bonuses based on performance (on the Stanford achievement test), and saw test scores go up dramatically.

As of November 2, Denver voters approved a pay for performance plan, and became the largest school district in the country switching to portion of pay based on students’ achievement.

Clearly, money matters. But we’re better off focusing on how we spend it. Simply raising education’s price tag is a failed and worn-out practice. Albert Einstein could have been describing the education establishment’s plan for improving schools when he said, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Isn’t it time we tried something new?