Education
4:00 am
Thu April 10, 2014

Competitive Teaching? NC Wrestles With Paying Best Teachers More

North Carolina Teacher Project, Part 17
Under the current teacher salary schedule, teachers are paid solely on years of experience.
Credit Dave DeWitt

This is an issue with way more than just two sides. To illustrate how convoluted and complicated paying teachers has become, consider this fairly simple argument from Terry Stoops, the Director of Education Studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation:

“Frankly it’s unfair to our highest-performing teachers,” Stoops says. “There’s no reason why the Teacher of the Year in North Carolina should make as much as any other teacher.”

Now here’s an actual, real life North Carolina Teacher of the Year, who, in a free market, would get paid more:

“First of all, I don’t think, as North Carolina Teacher of the Year, that I am the best teacher,” says Karyn Dickerson, an English teacher at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. “I think I simply represent a lot of the great teaching that I’ve seen in my school and in my district and, this year, traveling across the state that I’ve seen across the state. So, I think it’s very hard to classify who the best teacher is.”

Dickerson would prefer that entire schools of teachers get paid more based on performance, not individual teachers. She believes this would create an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition.

But a competition is exactly what the Legislature set up when it voted last summer to eliminate a teacher’s right to due process. They replaced tenure with a plan that directed school districts to identify the top twenty-five percent of teachers and offer them longer contracts and relatively small bonuses - if they agreed to give up their due process rights.

It was one of many Legislative actions that drew protests from teachers.

Backlash

Hearing the political backlash, elected officials have spent the last several months coming up with all manner of plans to increase teacher pay. Governor Pat McCrory and Legislative leaders Phil Berger and Thom Tillis appeared at McCrory’s old high school two months ago and announced a plan to pay beginning teachers more.

“I’m pleased to announce that over the next two years, this team has got an agreement in which we will increase by nearly fourteen percent over the next two years the base pay for teachers, to $35,000 per year,” McCrory announced.

That salary increase would go to all teachers in the first few steps of what is known as the teacher salary schedule. Paying teachers for years of experience has been the model for about 100 years. Local districts can add some money, and teachers used to be able to earn more when they got advanced degrees or earned National Board Certification.

If the Teacher of the Year is in her tenth year of teaching, another teacher, maybe even a bad one who's been at it twenty years, likely makes a lot more money.

In other words, if the Teacher of the Year is in her tenth year of teaching, another teacher – maybe even a bad one – who’s been at it twenty years, likely makes a lot more money.

That, many say, must change.

“What I would like to see is those high-achieving teachers, you get a step,” says State Senator Jerry Tillman. “You might even get two steps in one year. And if you’re not achieving, you may stay on the step you’re on, or you could lose a step.”

Tillman has become the Republican’s leading voice on education issues. A former school superintendent turned majority whip, he is for local control of schools and hates regulations that tie the hands of administrators who want to remake their schools.

And before you think this is some sort of easy, Republican-versus-Democrat, free-market-versus-socialism political fight, consider this: President Barack Obama also favors teacher merit pay.

And before you think this is some sort of easy, Republican-versus-Democrat, free-market-versus-socialism political fight, consider this: President Barack Obama also favors teacher merit pay, and made it a cornerstone of his Race to the Top grant competition.

Here’s what he said in 2009: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, and stop making excuses for bad ones. It’s time to demand results from government at every level. It’s time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.”

Educator Effectiveness and Compensation Task Force

Tillman is the co-chair of the Educator Effectiveness and Compensation Task Force. The group has met three times this year and its purpose is clear: upend the teacher step schedule and replace it with a merit-pay system.  

Duke Economics Professor Jacob Vigdor and Keith Poston with the Public School Forum of North Carolina were invited presenters, and offered two contrasting views of the research in the field in just one area the Task Force is considering.

Vigdor: “We just asked the question: can we observe that a teacher who receives a master’s degree becomes more effective in the classroom, and we can’t find that in the data.”

Poston: “Recent studies indicate master’s and doctoral degrees hold a positive impact for student achievement.”

That was hardly the only topic up for debate. Legislators heard about Florida’s merit-pay plan that produced almost no positive results. And the Washington DC plan that fired hundreds of teachers, but raised student test scores dramatically.

'I sort of have a feeling that if it will work in Washington DC, it will work in Pisgah, North Carolina.' - State Senator Jerry Tillman

“I’m hearing everything from paying ‘em more won’t work to paying ‘em more works,” said Tillman. “I sort of have a feeling that if it will work in Washington DC, it will work in Pisgah, North Carolina.”

Of course, Washington DC has an almost bottomless supply of young people wanting to teach, something that’s not the case in Pisgah - or Northampton County or Lumberton, for that matter.

There may be other reasons merit-pay programs for teachers won’t work here.

“School teachers by their very choice of profession are signaling to the world: money is not the most important thing in my life,” author Daniel Pink told the Emerging Issues Forum in February, adding a sarcastic jab at merit pay plans: “And so, let’s try to motivate them with money.”

Beyond the motivation issues, many educators believe a merit pay plan implemented now would be built on shifting sands.   

“I think it’s the first time it’s happened in my 30 years where the standards changed. The tests themselves changed. And the expectations for what it would take for a student to be deemed proficient changed and the bar was raised,” says Jim Key, an assistant superintendent in the Durham Public Schools. “We’ve gone through those three things before, but I don’t ever recall us going through them all simultaneously.”

When it convenes next month, the Legislature is highly likely to make dramatic, long-term changes to how we pay the state’s 95,000 or so teachers.

Any new plan could take effect as early as July 1.

These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.