Point of View

NC must be bold on increasing teacher pay

May 4, 2014 

With all the talk about teacher pay, no proposal is as ambitious as North Carolina needs. Making early-career pay moderately competitive, affecting a fraction of teachers, works only if leaders are content leaving North Carolina near the bottom of the barrel.

North Carolina is our home. “Not the worst” and even “average” do not describe the people’s aspirations in this state.

We are recognized national experts on teacher pay, having published papers for the bipartisan National Governors Association and organizations on both sides of the aisle. We are fiscally prudent progressives committed to excellent education for children from all ZIP codes.

The current state of teacher pay in North Carolina defies logic by any measure, whether moral or market. If leaders want a robust economy – with growing businesses, plentiful jobs and a well-prepared workforce – we must aim higher.

State leaders must set clear, audacious, achievable goals: average teacher pay at $60,000 and opportunities for outstanding teachers to lead teams with pay near the top among comparable states. Doing this well would drive an economic boom, benefiting businesses, employees and taxpayers.

State leaders can start by extending the revolution that Heath Morrison and Denise Watts have started in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. There, teachers and principals are redesigning instructional teams, led by outstanding teachers, for better results and sustainable career paths. Schools are reallocating funding to pay team teachers 3 percent to 20 percent more and team leaders 30 percent to 50 percent more, within budget.

These “Opportunity Culture” schools give excellent teachers and their teams in-school time to plan, collaborate and improve. Solid teachers work alongside outstanding peers to pursue excellence. Team members and leaders are jointly accountable for student results. Teachers can specialize, use age-appropriate technology for basic instruction and delegate appropriate student supervision and paperwork to paraprofessionals. Great teachers get to stay in the classroom, teaching and leading.

More than 700 teachers applied for about 20 openings in pilot schools. Nearly half of CMS schools will use these models in the next few years, and three other districts in three states are piloting similar designs.

North Carolina must also invest substantial new funds in three priorities:

• Across-the-board pay increases. N.C. teacher pay is too low by any comparison. Early-career pay increases are vital but insufficient. The majority of good and excellent teachers aren’t new, 22, and excited by a $35,000 salary.

• Step-skipping. Teachers who are highly effective in any year should skip steps on the pay scale, as in other professions. Outstanding early-career teachers could earn in six years salaries that now take 15 years to attain. Excellent veterans should skip steps, too. Excellence is not a state of being but a state of doing.

• Paying teachers more in high-poverty schools. Reward teachers for helping children in poverty successfully navigate life and learning challenges.

Three policy changes would make these improvements possible.

• First, legislators must end what is in effect their tax on innovation and local control when schools want to “trade in” an existing teaching position to fund another position or higher pay. Under recent changes, a school has to trade in such a position – let’s say for a teacher making $46,000, the average teachers’ pay – for the starting pay for that position, about $30,000. This punishes schools trying to innovate for better results and sustainable careers paths. Let schools trade for budget-neutral average pay dollars, as they did before 2012.

• Second, legislators should let teachers reach more students, for more pay – if a highly effective teacher is accountable for outcomes. K–3 class-size laws rest on the antiquated assumption that teachers work alone rather than in teams with teacher-leaders and paraprofessionals. But bluntly eliminating class-size limits leaves students and teachers at risk.

• Third, accountability policies, built for solo teachers, must change. When teachers teach in teams, formal accountability for learning outcomes should match the students and subjects for which each teacher is actually responsible.

If the legislature invests 10 percent more in teacher pay and enables Opportunity Culture designs, North Carolina’s economy would grow by $4 billion to $7 billion by 2030 (in current dollars), teachers’ career earnings would increase up to $1 million and student learning would surge. Businesses could hire skilled labor locally, reducing recruiting costs and turnover. The 10 percent could come from reallocating other state spending or reducing the tax cuts least likely to be reinvested within North Carolina.

Committed district leaders can get the ball rolling, as in Charlotte. But to transform the state, North Carolina’s political leaders must lead. First, they must raise their sights.

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are co-directors of Public Impact, a K-12 education policy and management organization based in Chapel Hill.

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