Opinion: Daily Journal

Relating teacher pay to teacher performance   

A participant in the May 2018 March for Students and Rally for Respect in downtown Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
A participant in the May 2018 March for Students and Rally for Respect in downtown Raleigh. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

In May, about 19,000 North Carolina teachers gathered in Raleigh to “Rally for Respect,” an event organized by the N.C. Association of Educators. The choice of the word “respect” was important. It implied attendees felt disrespected. 

By whom? The Republican-led General Assembly, of course. You can select all sorts of statistics, but many important ones aren’t consistent with NCAE’s argument. For example, we often hear how low North Carolina teacher pay is in state rankings, but a better way is to compare it against measures of cost of living or median income. We are 29th in average public elementary and secondary teacher pay as a percent of median household income. It’s nothing to write home about, but a lot higher than blue-state “models” — such as Hawaii, Maryland, and Minnesota — and the statistics cited by NCAE. Mississippi, the perennial laughing stock of the education “numerati,” is 12th.   

We could measure pay against outcomes. By this metric, salaries are high. According to the 2018 Education Week “K-12 Achievement Scores” we came in 33rd, four spots below where the John Locke Foundation’s Terry Stoops places current North Carolina teacher salaries as a proportion of living costs. And what about teacher “flight?” I’ve seen a number of stories about “Yankee” North Carolina teachers suggesting they will return home to Illinois, Michigan, or New York for better pay. To teach whom? They’ll be trampled by students and parents running in the opposite direction.   

The ralliers might have accused two other groups of disrespecting them. They didn’t.  The first are administrators. The state’s public schools undoubtedly have some fine leaders, but as a group, statistics reveal they consume more than their fair share of K-12 resources. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2015, the last year for which data are available, public school instructional costs in North Carolina were 76.3 percent of the per-student national average. General and school-level administrative costs were 79.1 percent of the national number. 

Teachers complain of incessant meddling by government officials — “too much testing” is a familiar refrain. But the regulatory burden created by school administrators can also be high.  No systematic data on these matters exist, but nearly every teacher has a story of a principal or area superintendent who prevented them from doing their job adequately. The biggest percentage-point decrease in “school leadership” items between the 2016 and 2018 North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions survey were for the items on administration’s consistent support of teachers and ability to create “an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.”    

With the infiltration of administrative practices shaped by identity politics, teachers, particularly in urban districts, are increasingly subject to all sorts of training and policies designed to diminish the use of their professional judgment. The assumption of this effort is teachers are racist, homophobic, and generally incapable of knowing what’s best for the children in their classrooms. That’s disrespect. An example is the new procedures adopted by several districts in response to claims of activists that, because minority students are suspended and expelled in disproportionate numbers, existing rules are, by definition, discriminatory.   

Now “in-school interventions” are a preferred form of discipline. It’s impossible to get any real data about the effects on academic outcomes, but it makes sense schools are directing significantly more resources away from instruction as a result. At the very least, instead of deferring to teachers’ professionalism, administrators are bowing to outside political pressure. 

The second group of “disrespecters” is teachers themselves, the bad ones. I’m sure there were many hardworking, skilled, and underpaid teachers at the gathering in May. But I’m equally sure there was significant variance among the ralliers in terms of the value they add and that many of North Carolina’s roughly 100,000 teachers are overpaid for the work they do — studies show that about 20 percent of teachers are “chronically absent,” for instance. As a quasi-union, NCAE really promotes the interests of its worst members. Our best teachers should understand that it prevents them from the salaries and resources they deserve by standing in the way of a system of merit pay. 

The battery of tests students taken today make it possible for schools to accurately measure the value teachers add over the course of a year. Schools could also empower parents, principals, and peers to evaluate teachers. This wealth of data could be used to relate pay to performance.      

Americans have a right to advocate for their interests. They should do so. But the May 16 marchers were a more heterogeneous group than we’ve been led to believe. I’d encourage many of them to realize their personal professional interests and those of the children they teach aren’t synonymous with NCAE’s. They need a more sophisticated understanding of who disrespects them. 

Andy Taylor is professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university. 


  • Fishbiscuit

    I’m about to go into my twentieth year teaching; roughly half of my career was spent as a social studies teacher in NC. One of the oh-so-tired ideas trotted out everyday by educational reformers is the idea that if we just fired “the bad teachers,” somehow, some way, those tax dollars formerly paying those people would magically find their way to the wallets of the rest of us, though I’ve never read any reformer’s ideas on how that would actually happen (devil in the details and all that). First, let’s agree right off the bat that there are indeed bad teachers that have to go…any teacher that is racist, sexist, homophobic, is sexually or verbally abusive should be fired and prosecuted by the law if appropriate (I could list other criteria her as well). Once you get rid of those, where and how, exactly, do you define what a bad teacher is? I will take this opportunity to say that yes, I’ve worked with teachers that I would define as bad and I would not want my child in their classroom. To that end, I would bring up one of the best quotes in education: “Show me a bad teacher that has tenure, and I’ll show you a principal that didn’t do their job.” And, yes, I fully support the idea that principals should use their authority to remove a person from a teaching position following appropriate legal steps and chances to improve their job performance.

    However, that still leaves a large number of teachers just waiting to be dismissed for being “bad.” I’m waiting for an objective, agreed-upon list of what exactly makes a teacher bad. (The aforementioned groups not withstanding). I have a feeling that I’ll be waiting a long time for that. Reformers like you Professor Taylor quite often want to try to bring it back to something quantifiable and measurable–most likely some grade on a standardized test–and I can tell you that having taught an EOC class for ten years in North Carolina, (Civics and Economics) that despite my best efforts, some of my students’ scores made me look like I was the best C&E teacher ever…some, definitely not. (I can tell you for a fact that some that I’ve taught–leaving aside the idea that my “value added” to my students is some standardized test score–would list me as their best teacher ever and others would put me at the opposite end of that spectrum). And, what about teachers of PE, music, art, drama, etc.? How exactly do you plan to quantify whether they are “good” or “bad” when its not quite that easy to give them some multiple-choice test?

    Some dynamics of human to human interaction will never lead to a clear-cut quantifiable perception of good and bad, and that gets unfortunately lost in the talk of just “fire all the bad teachers.” I make (I hope) a “good” husband to my wife; with other women, I’m sure I would not be deemed a good husband. There’s never going to be a checklist for “here’s what a good husband looks like.” More to my point, I remember a mother of twins who, because one of her daughters had the other C&E teacher in my building, and the other daughter had me, labeled me “bad” because my teaching methodologies and style were different from my colleague. I spent far too much time defending myself in individual meetings with her and at meetings with my principal with her there to ever be convinced that by any so-called objective measure, I was a “good teacher.” To bring my point home, even when the daughter that had me scored better than the daughter that had my colleague, she sent an email to me to say “Nothing I had done or taught her child contributed to her good EOC score.” Yet, according to you, Professor Taylor, I “added value” to that child’s learning, so I should be good, right? Try telling that to her mother years ago.

    So, in the end, can we please just let go of this idea that the educational system of the US can miraculously be improved by “firing our way to greatness?” Or, if that’s not possible, start the real and incredibly difficult task of coming to the table to agree on what a bad teacher is before we fire one whose students would hang the moon and stars for him or her?

  • kirtl

    There are many things that would need to be addressed to improve educational outcomes, many of which neither side wants to address. Here is one for thought. Education is currently an adversarial relationship for many. Rather than go to school because they want to learn, many students go because the law requires it. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. It would be great if there could be a real discussion on how to improve education.