Opinion: Daily Journal

Truth misstated on teacher pay

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.



  • Big Education

    Thank you. Yes, sir you are correct.. We have a lower of cost of living and quality of life here in our state that is not factored into the widely publicized NEA and other rankings. We are hiring more new teachers and promoting many to non-teaching positions which skew the results too. In order to attract quality teachers to the profession and our state these and other truths needs to be told. Teaching in NC is a good job with good benefits, a good work schedule, and highly regarded and valued.

  • David Harrison

    Teachers teach out of, from, on, via sheer passion.

    So purely by that reasoning, why pay teachers anything?

    Why even pay them, at all?

    What not ‘pay’ them zero, zilch, nada?

    Surely they would teach for free!

    Because passion often is not quantified, teaching’s resultant
    ‘productivity’ often is not tallied into numerical terms, despite about 2,500
    years of its integration into any of what we euphemistically term civil societies.

    Most cultures throughout that period or longer have settled
    into the vague notion (despite occasional crazed experiments to the contrary) that
    they cannot do without formal education for the benefit of their youth.

    We all seem to agree:

    Education (a.k.a., the skillful act of knowledgeably conveying
    a subject while creatively motivating a young person to adopt and accept – to learn
    – the veracity of said subject) is crucial.

    Else any community’s neglect of it would lead to palpable
    and persistent levels of, well… chaos.

    Or, at least, terrible waste and inefficiencies in human
    capital (what teachers might call, Achieving The Whole Child).

    But even with much evidence and a widespread ‘common
    sense’ realization that “Education is Vital!’, Western societies, much less
    North Carolina in 2016, seem hell bent to talk around but not directly ask –
    not whether teachers are not paid enough, while some actually imply teachers
    are paid too much! – the more central and salient point:

    What should a teacher be paid?

    Should!

    What is fair?

    What should – should, in any fair sense of the word –
    what should the proper remuneration be for college-educated persons who passionately
    strive (yet another pesky, unquantifiable term) to convey skills and make constructive
    impacts on at least 25% of the lives of impressionable children between about
    the ages of 4 through age 18, given that any civil society absolutely mandates
    that children indeed will be educated by capable adults who systematically provide
    and validate a rigorous standard course of study, in order (we all pray!) for hopefully
    95% of all children to complete the process called ‘school’ with some demonstrable
    ability to become self-sufficient adults.

    We all also agree the process called Education does not just
    happen, naturally, of its own volition. Someone must make that happen, patiently,
    in measured steps, over 15 or so years.

    So, what is the right and reasonable pay for the talented
    people willing and capable of making that process happen, effectively?

    Why do we tacitly believe the utterly crucial service
    called education ‘comes cheap’? As we say in the South, ‘It don’t,’ yet we pretend
    it does.

    Is a paltry and ridiculous $35k annually insultingly too
    low? Is the astronomical and outrageous sum of $65k a year too much?

    Maybe we should be asking: What is a decent and
    appropriate living wage for professionals who provide this complex and essential
    service? (Sundry benefits, adequate supplies and facilities, let alone ‘respect,’
    notwithstanding.)

    What we consistently refuse to confront is a factual and economically
    based means, a formula by which we ascribe and truly express a common value –
    stated in numeric terms – to the act of teaching.

    The result of ignoring this elephant-in-the-room is
    militant stridency. Anecdotes in support of higher pay and miserly generalizations
    essentially for lower pay both are self-defeating and inveigh against The
    Question:

    How should we determine the real urgency and meaning of education?

    Meanwhile, most of the politically circular arguments, on
    all sides, about teacher pay almost purposefully skirt and dismiss that main
    point.

    What is teaching worth?

    To North Carolina, in 2016?

    David Harrison, Member – Cabarrus Board of Education

    Harrisburg, NC

    • Sam

      Maybe the question should be: “why do we have so many adminstrative staff and why we pay them so much money?” Your eloquent passage, rife with nostalgia about civil societies (define civil?) and the noble profession of teaching, ignores the sunken costs of administrating education.

      All the new money over the past 40 years has gone to adminstration by a 3-1 margin. We’ve increased the adminstrative positions over 700% while the student population has barely doubled. Federal mandates to States to receive that federal money require this excessive waste of money towards people who are not in front of students day in and day out. Without any additional taxes or revenue to pay teachers more (or increase the number of actual teachers – ironic the NEA and other teachers unions don’t argue this point, as doing so would increase the number of dues paying members they could have), the elimination of even a few adminstrative positions per district would free up a couple hundred thousand dollars annually and reduce future pension costs dramatically (future sunk costs that also don’t go directly to student facing staff)

  • Kristopher Nordstrom

    Article makes 2 good points when it comes to teacher pay stats: 1) we should adjust for years of experience 2) most of our competition is within NC rather than across states.

    However, gets 2 things wrong. 1) should adjust based on how teacher salaries compare to salaries in other careers requiring a bachelor’s in each state, not cost of living; and 2) salaries have not risen the fastest under McCrory (see picture)

    • Sam

      What about summers off? If I made my salary and could take two weeks at Christmas, most of June-Aug off, and every other random holiday, I’d have a lot less to complain about in my normal day to day.

      If the private sector can make you more money, why would you teach other than the love of the job and children? And if that reasoning is the love of teaching and children, logic directs me to ask, why does the salary matter then?

  • KMadison

    I left teaching after ten years due to the low pay. I was a special education teacher and now I work in an office and tutor a little in the evenings. I am happy I made the switch – much less stress in my life now. One thing not mentioned is that now that the state has done away with tenure for teachers who did not already have it, all non-tenured teachers are on a year-long contract every year. I never wanted to be a contract worker who would never know if there would be a job there the next year. That is no way to build a career.

  • Leigh Parker Humphrey

    I have taught 26 years and have been basically ignored in the last 2 series of “raises” as well as losing my longevity. This general assembly has done nothing to honor my loyalty to a profession many in NC are leaving. In a few years, the public will see the consequences of the GA”s actions and whereas, at one time I might have considered staying, why would I? You reap what you sow. And btw, larger salaries are not going to counteract having no tenure, no longevity, no pay for higher degrees, larger class sizes, fewer teacher assistants, possibly no state supported pension or health insurance–and I could go on…And, it is criminal how they take so much public money from public education and use it for “opportunity scholarships” (and charter–yes, I know they are technically public) that have little to no accountabilty, certainly not what they expect from public schools.