You’ve probably heard that North Carolina ranks near the bottom of the country in the average pay received by our public schoolteachers. I wouldn’t blame you for believing this statement to be true, because it’s been repeated so often by so many politicians, journalists, and political activists.
Nevertheless, the statement is incorrect. North Carolina is not even close to the bottom of the country in average teacher pay. We have never reached that point, at least not in modern times.
I’m not saying the statistic is made up. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher union, produces annual rankings of the states in teacher pay, per-pupil expenditures, and other school indicators. According to the raw averages in the report, North Carolina fell into the bottom 10 states in teacher pay in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The report ranked North Carolina 42nd in average pay last year and 41st in average pay this year (although the report also demonstrated that, again according to the raw averages, North Carolina has raised teacher pay more than in other state has over the last two years.)
The reason I keep using the word “raw” averages, however, is that the teacher-pay data used in the report aren’t adjusted for such factors as the purchasing power of the dollar or the distribution of new and experienced teachers in each state. It costs more to live in New York than in New Bern. And fast-growing states such as North Carolina tend to hire lots of new teachers every year, while slower-growing states don’t. Because new teachers typically earn less than older ones, that will make the level of pay look artificially low.
These observations are not really that controversial among scholars and policy analysts who work on education issues. Even the NEA cautions readers to keep in mind that its teacher-pay rankings don’t adjust for factors such as cost of living. Yet here in North Carolina, these rankings get reported and recycled endlessly as if they were an accurate picture of what the national and regional labor markets for teachers look like.
How much of a difference would it make if the rankings were properly computed and reported? My John Locke Foundation colleague, Terry Stoops, routinely takes the NEA statistics and adjusts them accordingly. Although the data on teacher experience is not yet available for this year, Stoops was able to compute North Carolina’s ranking in average teacher pay after adjusting for state variations in living costs.
We rank 33rd in the nation by such an accounting, not 41st. Moreover, the new state budget will increase average teacher salaries in North Carolina by nearly 5 percent next year. All other things being equal, that would boost our state’s ranking to 28th. Further adjustments for teacher experience would boost North Carolina even closer to the national median.
In reality, most teachers don’t decide whether to work based on national comparisons of compensation. Most people who consider taking a teaching job in North Carolina already live here, or are already moving here (often with a spouse), or already live in a nearby state. While I believe North Carolina’s recent increases in teacher pay were wise, and that we should use competitive, well-design compensation systems to attract and retain good teachers, I also believe that putting national rankings of average teacher pay at the center of education-policy debates has long been horribly misguided.
Most peer-reviewed studies on the subject find no positive, statistically significant correlation between average teacher salaries and student performance. That may be because the structure of the compensation system matters more than the typical variation in average pay among states or districts. Do consistently high-performing teachers earn more than their mediocre or low-performing peers? What about those who teach more challenging subjects or a disproportionate number of poor students or children with special needs?
Don’t let anyone trying to make the teacher-pay issue into a bumper sticker. It’s complicated. And some of what you hear about it is just flat wrong.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.