Where low pay for NC teachers will lead us

August 13, 2013 

When I heard that the state legislature had frozen teacher salaries in North Carolina for the fifth year in a row, I immediately thought about Leslie Ross.

Leslie teaches science in Greensboro, in the school district I used to lead. Most recently, she taught biology at Smith High School. Smith serves mostly students who struggle with poverty and other challenges at home and who are often many grade levels behind academically.

Year after year, Ross has helped these students beat the odds. Her students at Smith routinely blew past the statewide averages on the end-of-course biology exam. In fact, over the last three years, 100 percent of her students passed the exam, even though the state predicted that 30 percent would fail. Leslie Ross is opening the door for more students to graduate and attend college. That’s why she was one of just four teachers in America to win the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, which recognizes the country’s best teachers in high-poverty public schools.

Ross is the kind of teacher every parent wants for her child: dedicated, nurturing and amazingly good at her job. In a word, she’s irreplaceable. So how much is a great teacher like Ross worth to North Carolina? This year – her 16th serving the students of Greensboro – her state salary is just $45,000 (Guilford County kicks in an extra $5,000). By comparison, in Houston, a beginning teacher makes $46,805 and is eligible for a $13,000 performance bonus.

That’s just not enough. Teaching is one of the most important jobs on the planet. Decades of research tells us that teachers matter more to student success than any other school factor. The top priority of any school system should be bringing outstanding teachers into the classroom and keeping them there for a long time. It’s something I work on every day as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. Since we launched our Effective Teachers Initiative in 2010 in order to recognize, reward and retain our irreplaceable teachers, we’ve seen the retention rates for our top teachers climb.

But the outdated approach to teacher pay in North Carolina makes this nearly impossible.

The state has the fifth-lowest average teacher salaries in the country. Many North Carolina teachers start out making just $31,000 a year. It takes five years before new teachers can earn a raise, and it can take as long as 15 years just to make it to $40,000. It takes 35 years to reach the top of the pay scale, which is just $53,000 if you don’t have an advanced degree.

Because the legislature has frozen teacher salaries for so long, North Carolina ranks dead last in the average raise given to teachers over the last decade. Controlling for inflation, the average teacher in North Carolina earned 16 percent less last year than in 2002. To make matters even worse, North Carolina doesn’t let teachers earn raises based on their performance, instead awarding raises only for years of service.

This is not a pitch that will bring enough of the best and the brightest college graduates into teaching, nor will it inspire top teachers to stay in North Carolina’s classrooms for their entire careers. Why should we expect talented teachers with a track record of success to wait three decades to climb to a salary that is still far less than you’d earn in another profession?

As a native North Carolinian who worked in the state’s public schools for 22 years, I’m deeply disappointed by this failure to invest in great teaching. The legislature needs to end the five-year freeze and raise teacher salaries across the board, so that North Carolina can compete for the best teachers.

Just as importantly, the state needs to pay great teachers what they’re worth so they stay in their jobs longer. When I was superintendent in Guilford County, we were able to find the funding to pay incentives to teachers in shortage areas and teachers who worked with our most challenging students. Statewide, we ought to allow teachers with consistently high marks on their performance evaluations to move up the pay scale more quickly. North Carolina can’t afford to make teachers rich, but it must find a way to pay teachers – especially the best teachers – enough to let them escape student loan debt, start a family and maybe even buy a house. We owe Leslie Ross and all our teachers at least that much.

Terry Grier was the superintendent of Guilford County Schools from 2000 to 2008. He is currently the superintendent of the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District in Houston.

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