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.