As we begin another school year in North Carolina, we are struck by a resounding dissonance. Each year we send our children to school hoping they will receive the best education possible, yet each year we pull resources from those schools. How can we expect improved student achievement while we continue to underpay our teachers and remove incentives for them to become better at their jobs?
The fact that teacher pay (in constant dollars) has fallen faster in North Carolina than in any other state in the nation over the past decade has finally raised some eyebrows. Removing pay incentives for teachers who earn graduate degrees should as well.
In a 2012 N.C. State University study, we found that advanced degrees held by teachers were the most important predictor of middle school students’ environmental literacy levels in North Carolina. This was true for students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic levels, and for students in public, private and charter schools.
While opponents of pay incentives have cited decades-old research on the effects of teacher master’s degrees on student performance on standardized tests, more recent research on science and math performance at middle and high school levels is unequivocal: Math and science students with teachers who have graduate degrees learn more.
And you don’t have to take just our word for it. A Calder Urban Center report based on Duke University researchers’ analysis of North Carolina test results over time found “compelling evidence that teacher credentials affect student achievement.”
Over decades, North Carolina earned a reputation as an education state because of its progressive policies, including an emphasis on mathematics and science education. This reputation, which enticed industries and businesses to locate in North Carolina, is in jeopardy. Average teacher pay in North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation, and our per-student funding is even lower, coming in at a pitiful 48th.
Deficit hawks may argue that they can strategically carve pieces out of education budgets without harming the student experience, but in practice per-capita student expenditures are a good predictor of student achievement in state comparisons. States with the very lowest expenditures tend to have the lowest student achievement and vice versa.
Furthermore, the cuts in North Carolina have lacked precision. If balancing budgets is used as justification for carving pieces from our education system, we’d better be more surgical in our approach.
Most North Carolinians place a high value on public education. The combination of low teacher pay, loss of valuable classroom aides, loss of teacher tenure and loss of tangible incentives for teachers’ continued education threatens our state’s once-respected education system. Taken together, these steps backward will cause long-term, irreversible damage.
Recently, U.S. students ranked 25th in math and 17th in science on an international comparison that cited evidence of a “STEM crisis.” Strong math and science classes, taught by highly qualified teachers, are essential if North Carolina students are to compete in a global economy. Let’s give them that opportunity by restoring our standing as an “education state” that values teachers.
Nils Peterson is an assistant professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at N.C. State University. Kathryn Stevenson is a former science teacher and Ph.D. student in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. Renee Strnad, an environmental educator; Susan Moore, an assistant professor of forestry extension; and Howard Bondell, an assistant professor of statistics, also contributed.