We Need a Better Way to Pay Teachers

The education budget remains the center of an ongoing battle between Democratic Gov. Perdue and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Discussions are framed by how best to adequately fund the public schools and also address North Carolina’s $2.4 billion budget deficit. While these discussions are important, viewing these efforts as an exercise in developing the most favorable budget reduction scenario is to miss the larger point: education budgets are a function of how to fund public education and how we staff our schools.

Public schools are about educating children. Obviously effective teachers are an important part of this work. Last year North Carolina spent $2.9 billion on classroom teacher salaries – the single largest educational expense. Projected budget reductions and concern over student achievement are good reasons to review how North Carolina pays its teachers.

Financing Schools

North Carolina’s system of public schools is highly centralized. This derives in part from how the state funds schools. Approximately 65 percent of local school funds come from the state, one of the highest percentages among the 50 states. Of the remaining funds, 25 percent is from local sources and 10 percent from the federal government. State money comes to local districts in the form of allotments. Each allotment has a formula to determine how it is distributed.  Briefly stated, there are allotments to pay for personnel (e.g., teacher’s staff and administrators), programs and services.

In North Carolina, teacher costs are linked to the number of teachers hired and the salaries they are paid. The number of teacher and teacher assistants employed by school districts is set by grade-specific student teacher ratios. For example, the teacher:student ratio for students in kindergarten through grade three is 1:18. Ratios increase with grade levels. The teacher student ratio for grades 10 through 12 is 1:29. Schools must abide by these ratios unless they receive a waiver to do otherwise. In recent years, strict policies regarding teacher student ratios have forced Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to construct additional schools.

Teacher Salary Schedule

Teacher salaries are determined by the North Carolina Public School Salary Schedule. The salary schedule lists salaries for teachers, instructional support staff and administrators. As you can see salary differentials are based on longevity and credentials. For example, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 0-2 years experience earns $30,430 over 10 months.  Similarly, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and 30 years experience would earn $49,840 over 10 months.  Each year of employment adds another step and a larger pay increment – in this case, an additional 1 percent – to teacher salaries.

Teacher salaries are also differentiated by credential. Teachers who hold masters, advanced status, doctoral degrees or have been awarded National Teacher Certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) also receive additional salary supplements.  In many cases, these supplements are substantial. Masters degree recipients usually receive a 10 percent increase in pay. Last year, North Carolina teachers received nearly $181 million in masters pay supplements. Teachers with NBPTS certification receive an immediate 12 percent increase for the duration of the certification. NBPTS certification is awarded for 10 years. Last year over 2,200 teachers received NBPTS certification. North Carolina now has 17,957 NBPTS certified teachers, by far the largest number of any state.  In 2010-11, teachers with NBPTS certification were paid an additional $82.8 million in salary supplements. The lack of across the board pay raises has contributed to higher numbers of applicants seeking NBPTS certification the past two years. No doubt teachers view certification as another option to increase their salary.

Interestingly, it is also possible for teachers to combine both supplements (masters and NBPTS certification).  Those who do receive an additional 22 percent salary supplement.

Teacher Salary Schedule: Criticisms

The current teacher salary schedule is based on two premises: 1) level of inputs determines educational outcome; and 2) more experienced teachers and more credentialed teachers are better teachers.

The past 15 years have cast considerable doubt about the credibility of those assertions.

More Inputs = Better Outputs? Because the state picks up the cost of teacher salary and benefits, LEAs have no incentive to hold down costs. In fact, the current system has a built-in bias to hire teachers with higher levels of education and credentialing, while virtually ignoring actual performance or results.

The number and compensation of North Carolina teachers has grown significantly in the last 15 years. In 1996-97 starting teachers were making about $21,300 annually. The bias toward more qualified and higher paid teachers are reflected in the steady rise of teacher salary and compensation figures. According to a February 2009 report by Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation:

Adjusted for pension contributions, teacher experience, and cost of living, North Carolina’s adjusted annual teacher compensation is $59,252, high enough for North Carolina to rank No. 14 in the United States. That’s $4,086 higher than the U.S. adjusted average and $674 higher than the average of states ranked by the Southern Regional Education Board. These numbers refute the cliché that North Carolina has underpaid schoolteachers who are victims of miserly, unappreciative, and ignorant taxpayers.”[1]

There has been much discussion over the past decade over how the growth in the number of teachers, salary levels and educational expenditures has not produced commensurate increases in the quality of educational outcomes. Both national and state polling data reflects continued unease among citizens and voters regarding the quality of public education. Growing enrollments in private schools and the growing momentum to expand public charter schools also cast doubt on the perceived link between the level of resources and education quality.

The Missing Link.  North Carolina pays teachers to educate young people and improve overall student achievement. We’ve put a premium on experience and credentials and offer teachers generous incentives to those who have additional educational experiences and credentials.  However we seem to ignore some disturbing facts.  There is considerable research showing teachers with masters degrees perform no better than teachers without. [2]

Moreover, numerous articles detail growing reservations about the value of NBPTS certification. Several recent articles I have written on the subject can be accessed here. Such benefits are often described as minimal. In addition, other studies have noted that NBPTS certification is frequently awarded to teachers that are already highly regarded. Thus it is difficult to determine if national certification is really adding to teachers skills.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the NC teacher salary schedule rewards longevity and credentialing while the research suggests the link between the two and student achievement is – at best – weak.

Disruptions on the Local Labor Market. In addition to creating salary supplements with weak links to student achievement, the current teacher salary schedule also disrupts labor markets. Paraphrasing Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor, the North Carolina teacher salary schedule undervalues teacher compensation at a time when a young teacher can have maximum impact on students and overvalues teacher compensation at a time when teacher influence and impact on students is waning.  In addition, the relatively slow climb of teacher salaries in comparison to other professions — such as doctors or lawyers –works to keep qualified people away from the field and contributes to teacher turnover.[3]

Loss of Local Control. The teacher salary schedule is state government’s attempt to provide a one-size fits all solution to a problem that is best resolved by giving Local Education Agencies (LEA) more flexibility to address their local needs. The failure to consider the strong differences in individual labor markets and cost pressures are a serious limitation. These shortcomings have contributed to all but a handful of LEAs offering teacher salary supplements that boost annual teacher salary on average about $3,400 per year.

The salary schedule by its centralized nature and the formulas that drive school funding have elevated the importance of political relationships and in so doing mobilized teachers  to exert political influence and to strengthen alliances between teacher unions and legislators.

Finally teacher salary schedules weaken local control by weakening principals. While principals have the responsibility to ensure effective teaching and learning is taking place, restrictive salary schedules strip them of the ability to encourage and discourage teacher performance.

Now What?

Should we continue to pay teachers using a salary schedule that rewards longevity over teacher effectiveness and student performance? Under the current salary schedule excellent teachers are essentially paid the same as ineffective teachers. Is such a policy fair to our teachers or our students?

Lawmakers can help address the current crisis by limiting salary supplements (i.e., masters, NBPTS etc.) to current recipients only. Long-term solutions must focus on variants of a merit pay plan for teachers. A full discussion of such is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, the North Carolina Association of Educators’ (NCAE), an organization which functions as the state teachers union, will vigorously oppose any such proposal.

Detractors will inevitably point to the imperfections of merit pay. There are difficulties in developing a valid, teacher evaluation system. However, a plan needn’t be perfect to be helpful. Rewarding good teaching will do much to address the current problems and –most importantly– improve student achievement.

North Carolina Classroom Teachers and Budgeted Funds for Classroom Teachers by Year
Year Budgeted Classroom Teachers State Budgeted Funds
2003-04 62,477 $2.359
2004-05 64,706 $2.451
2005-06 65.964 $2.556
2006-07 67,769 $2.754
2007-08 68,975 $2.924
2008-09 68,681 $2.981
2009-2010 69,010 $2.955
2010-11 69,524 $2.948

Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

1Annual Report on Teacher Pay: NC teacher compensation is more than $4,000 higher than the national average, John Locke Foundation Spotlight No. 367, February 3, 2009, by Dr. Terry Stoops. 

2See: The Effects of NBPTS Certified Teachers on Student Achievement, Douglas Harris and Tim Sass. Available at: http://www.caldercenter.org/PDF/1001060_NBPTS_Certified.pdf; National Research Council Study: Assessing Accomplished Teaching: Advanced Level Certification Programs, 2008; For expanded version of research on NBPTS see: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/4/2/7/7/pages142776/p142776-2.php

3Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule by Jacob Vigdor in Education Next, Fall 2008. Available at: http://educationnext.org/scrap-the-sacrosanct-salary-schedule/

This article was posted in Education by Bob Luebke on March 22, 2011 at 11:09 AM.

© 2011 The Civitas Institute. Visit us on the web at www.nccivitas.org.
This article can be found at https://www.nccivitas.org/2011/we-need-a-better-way-to-pay-teachers/

Comments on this article

  • 1

    Beth Wingate
    Beth Wingate Mar 24, 2011 at 0:45

    I have twice received my National Board Certification (it has to be renewed every 10 years). I am currently working on a Master’s Degree. Both of these require reflection, data analysis, and have caused me to rethink the way I teach. Without these processes, I might not have done this. Our new evaluation pushes things like more training if you want to score at the highest level. Would you like to have a doctor who has been in practice for three years or twenty? All teachers are new at one point but let’s not forget that you can’t buy experience. Incentives such as National Board and a grad. degree are the only options we have to increase our salaries. In the accounting business, do the CPA’s earn more? Do PA’s earn more than an MD? Why is it that you think teachers who work harder should be paid less for their time and experience??

  • 2

    Bill Mar 24, 2011 at 23:41

    There are so many misleading statements and data taken out of context, not presented in it’s entirety and general conjecture presented as fact in your piece that it is frankly nauseating. You are taking a minority opinion and presenting it as a mainstream consensus in a way that can only be characterized as propaganda. Perhaps the real reason people like you are doing your utmost to completely gut the public school system is so that the large numbers of economically less fortunate people you wish to manipulate and take advantage of in life will not posses the critical thinking skills needed to see people like you for what you are, or what you are doing to them in the name of economic conservatism, which is of course a ruse. Instead of providing corporate welfare to already enormously profitable private corporations with direct ties to state and local leadership, we should be paying our highly educated and experienced teachers what they are worth- surely you realize these highly skilled professionals would make far more in the private sector, and what could be more important to the future of our great nation then it’s children’s educations? NOTHING!!!!!

    As for what you seem to is such an evil thing as combining advanced training and degrees with a master board certification to make more money, in what other profession on earth exactly is pay not commensurate with qualifications? You can’t name one because there isn’t.
    Why should the same rules not apply to teachers as any other educated and credential-led profession? Does not an MD earn more than an RN? Why do you not have a problem with that?

    As for “Merit Pay” what planet are you on, really? Not one that involves being around a lot of children, clearly. First off, a REAL education is a largely intangible thing, it can be hinted at by the use of metrics, but any experienced educator knows that the standardized testes only measure one thing: How well that child takes a test.
    In addition, remember back to your own childhood to the tough teacher that you really hated. You would have gotten even with them then if you could have, even though looking back on it now they were the ones you thank for best preparing you for life.
    Well, when little Johnny figures out that he can get back at teach by messing with her pay by blowing his test, it’s going to happen. On what planet, this or other is that remotely fair?

    What you will accomplish is ensuring that the best and brightest go nowhere near the field of education.

  • 3

    Bob Luebke
    Bob Luebke Mar 29, 2011 at 18:02


    There is a lot of conflicting research about the benefits of NBPTS certification. I’m all for linking training to outcomes. However, nothing definitively suggests NBPTS certification boosts student achievement.

    That NBPTS certification is the only route to a pay increase for teachers makes my point. I want good teachers to be paid more. However, the economic dowturn highlights problems with the current system. What is just about paying good teachers and bad teachers the same salary? Good teachers should be paid more… However the current one-size-fits-all system, doesn’t allow that to happen. Good teaching and student achievement are linked. Our current system isn’t. That’s my point.

  • 4

    ERH Jul 08, 2011 at 8:50

    Next time you need a surgeon…I have ” evidence” that experience and longevity don’t make a surgeon any better…let me introduce you to this guy right out of med school who wants to cut on you. He’s so bright and fresh and enthusiastic and just raring to wield a scalpel! Lie down, please. :)

  • 5

    Sherry Wentz
    Sherry Wentz Feb 07, 2012 at 13:36

    This article is so misleading. Teachers and state employees have not had a raise in over four years. With inflation continuing to rise, it is getting very hard for us to make ends meet at home and in the schools. More educators in the public school system are having to use their own money to purchase classroom items. It needs to be addressed but not in the way that these people are doing it. We need at least a cost of living raise each year. We are not selfish, uncaring employees as is being stated. We care about these kids and what and how they learn. However, we can’t just do it for free. We must meet our budgets just like people in any profession.

  • 6

    Tina Covey
    Tina Covey Feb 08, 2012 at 22:05

    All I can say is, I promise you my pay is nowhere close to $60, 000 per year. I wish it were. I have been teaching 15 years and make less than $40,000. In addition, NC does have a merit pay system called ABC’s and they haven’t paid the bonuses that we have earned from that in the past four years. How can I expect NC to pay me for increasing student achievement on a different merit pay system, when they already haven’t held up their end of the bargain. I work hard everyday to make sure my students are working to their potential, but I promise you I can’t do it alone. It takes all parties involved to make a child truly successful. I don’t understand why there is so much bashing on teachers who are working hard to make a living and helping children become productive citizens. Why not take on the welfare system which rewards people for staying home and having babies. I know of people first hand whom are able bodied and can work and choose not to and tax payers take care of them.

  • 7

    marilyn vick
    marilyn vick Feb 12, 2012 at 15:47

    I have only just become aware of the movement that wishes to delete the public school system. I read the comments above with great interest. I agree with most of them, especially those with comments specifically addressing pay. Where on earth do you get your figures? the same place you buy your mushrooms I guess? The annual bonus you refer to is a manufactured figure, as a “seasoned” 8 year veteran my annual bonus is nowhere close to that. While you make propaganda out of it, I would ask you to consider the fact that it goes nowhere near covering the 12 hour days I uusually work. Or the weekends spent getting ready for the next week. Nor does it compensate for the hundreds of dollars I spend of my own money in classroom materials. I leave this message extremely concerned that some individuals who are not well versed in the true salary schedule will believe your ridiculous asertions and assume that your statements are true.

  • 8

    MHD Mar 03, 2012 at 10:09

    There are good reasons why I am leaving the teaching profession as soon as possible…low pay and tons of abuse…

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