Point of View

For better North Carolina schools, link teacher pay to effectiveness

March 11, 2013 

Thirty years after being warned that America is “A Nation At Risk,” our schools are still not where they need to be. Gov. Pat McCrory says the school system is broken. Teachers complain that they are disrespected and underpaid. Parents wonder whether their kids are getting the education they need for a global economy.

Elected officials are frustrated that their efforts to improve education haven’t shown the expected results. Taxpayers wonder whether their money is being well spent. And administrators hear it from all sides.

No one is satisfied.

Testing results quantify the concerns. National Assessment of Education Progress scores in math and reading have barely budged in the past four decades. U.S. students rank in the middle when compared with their peers around the world. Middling is not good enough.

Meanwhile, the evolving global economy is demanding something different from the world’s workforce. It is rewarding the educated workforce. A U.S. economy that once needed many workers with brawn and relatively few with formal educations has switched to one that requires many workers with formal educations and fewer with brawn. The education system has to adapt to this reality.


North Carolina has responded with a variety of promising educational strategies. But more than half of all teachers leave teaching within five years. School systems continue to pay teachers poorly (North Carolina ranks 46 in teacher pay) while shuffling thousands of new teachers in and out of the system every year. Good teachers are lost, and time and effort that should be spent on education are spent on introductions.

North Carolina should focus on filling schools with successful well-paid teachers. It should implement a properly designed incentive system that substantially rewards successful teachers.

The twin challenges for any incentive system is finding a suitable measure of merit and assuring substantial rewards for success. The measure has to reflect what the teacher did to advance students. It also has to be understandable for stakeholders from parents to taxpayers.

North Carolina’s existing standardized testing system provides the basis for the evaluation. End-of-grade tests and end-of-course tests quantify a student’s beginning and ending achievement for select categories of study. The increase measures the student’s educational growth. The percentage increase measures the student’s growth in a manner that can be compared across categories.

These individual student measures can be compiled to determine an individual teacher’s impact, allowing the school system to identify the most successful teachers.

For example, tests tell us the math proficiency of eighth-graders at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. The student’s percentage increase in test scores is a measure of educational growth. The compilation of the growth of all of an eighth-grade math teacher’s students provides a measure of impact.


The teachers who provide the greatest percentage improvement for their students should receive the greatest incentive payment. Success and reward are connected by linking the growth of all of a teacher’s students to the incentive. Successful teachers then enjoy a better income and recognition of their ability.

Under this approach, North Carolina could expect a greater focus on the growth of each applicable student each year. It should expect greater respect for the many good teachers in the system as they will be identified. And it should expect students’ advancing more each year than those in other school systems as teachers with incentives fill our teaching positions.

This approach would require a substantial incentive to reward successful teachers, but North Carolina can afford it. An appropriation equal to 5 percent of eligible teacher salaries translates to a 20 percent incentive for the top 10 percent of teachers, 15 percent for the next 10 percent, 10 percent for the next 10 percent and 5 percent for the next 10 percent. Add another 5 percent in the second year, and the incentives will be even higher, leading to a much better standard of living for effective teachers.

Linking rewards and effectiveness would provide teachers not only with the higher salaries they desire but also the merit and respect of being judged effective. It also provides for a better-educated group of high school graduates – and is the one thing that hasn’t been tried in 30 years of reforms.

Paul Lawler of Wilmington serves on the Steering Committee for Wilmington’s Comprehensive Plan.

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