Revenue shortfalls and the state government’s need to balance the budget have raised the possibility of massive teacher layoffs at the local level. While the economy is partly to blame, the way North Carolina hires and pays teachers has also contributed mightily to the current problems.
Last year North Carolina spent approximately $2.9 billion to hire 69,000 classroom teachers. The number of teachers hired by the public schools is linked to the state’s class-size requirements per grade. Classes are smaller in the early elementary grades and increase in the middle and high school grades.
How much teachers are paid is determined by the Teacher Salary Schedule (TSS). Under TSS, every year of service is equal to a higher pay grade for North Carolina teachers. Teachers who acquire additional credentials such as a masters or doctorate degree or national certification through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards receive additional salary supplements.
At one time the policies North Carolina developed for paying teachers might have made sense. Today, however, they raise questions and controversy. While teacher-student ratios are important, research about the importance of class size is far from conclusive. Academic gains often dissipate as students enter later grades. Research also suggests that effective teaching is oftentimes a more important variable than class size in determining student achievement.
Despite these realities, North Carolina continues to rigorously adhere to class size ratios that force communities to build more classrooms and hire more teachers. It’s a fact that for a variety of reasons some teachers can handle more students in a classroom; some are comfortable with less. That may be a function of teaching skills, subject material or student backgrounds. Isn’t it best if we let schools make that determination?
TSS provides significant salary supplements for those who obtain additional degrees or certification. Masters degree recipients usually receive a 10 percent increase in pay. Last year, North Carolina paid nearly $181 million in masters pay supplements. In addition, teachers with national certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) are awarded an immediate 12 percent pay increase. In 2010, North Carolina paid $82.8 million in salary supplements to NBPTS recipients. Interestingly, teachers who have both masters and NBPTS certification will receive a 22 percent increase in salary.
The job of public school teachers is as important as it is difficult. North Carolina spent close to $8 billion on public schools last year. Shouldn’t the way we pay teachers help ensure that our investment in children will produce good returns?
According to the Fiscal Research Office of the General Assembly, “multiple studies, including several examining NC data, indicate that teachers with advanced degrees perform no better than teachers without advanced degrees.” Yet we continue to fund the supplements.
Meanwhile the battle over the value of NBPTS certification continues to rage. A prominent study by the National Research Council seemed to suggest that NBPTS certification resulted in some improvements. In trying to gauge the increase, however, one statistician equated the increase to a 1 point increase on a test with a mean score of 150. Is such a small payoff worth the investment?
The fundamental problem with North Carolina’s TSS is that instead of rewarding effective teaching, it rewards longevity and credentialing. While we like to think an experienced teacher is a better teacher, it is not necessarily so. Showing up every day doesn’t make you a better teacher. There is no research that cites longevity as a component of effective teaching or student achievement.
In addition to lacking proper incentives, TSS has other problems. Because the state picks up the cost of teacher salary and benefits, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) have no incentive to hold down costs. In fact, the pay schedule has a built-in bias to hire teachers with higher levels of education and credentialing, while virtually ignoring actual performance or results.
Enforcing equality and standardization across the state may sound good, but what gets sacrificed is local control. Restrictive salary schedules strip principals of powerful incentives to reward or discourage teacher performance. This too often results in good teachers and bad teachers being paid the same salaries. Such problems are best resolved by giving school officials the authority to meet local needs.
Educating our children is one of the most important functions of North Carolina state government. Success in this area requires a teacher salary schedule that rewards good teaching and links it to student achievement. The current system fails to do either. Is there a more compelling reason for adopting a new way to pay our teachers?
This article originally appeared in the Wilmington Star on March 28, 2011.