- The debate often relies on misleading statistics
- Cost of living, seniority must be factored in
- Median salary a more useful number than “average”
Teacher pay continues to be one of the most talked-about issues of the young 2016 Short Session, but far too often misleading statistics distort the debate. Before we can responsibly raise teachers’ salaries, we must agree on a clear and accurate understanding of what those figures really mean.
Media outlets are flooded with stories about how North Carolina teacher pay has fallen in recent years. A recent WRAL news documentary on the subject focused mostly on the hardships teachers face, North Carolina’s position relative to other states, and prospects for pay raises in the General Assembly.
The program reflects the dominant narrative of the liberal left and educational establishment. The solution to the teacher pay crisis is more money. The rush to define the problem and the solution has propelled a discussion on teacher pay that is incomplete and lacking. It’s time to slow down and discuss a few relevant subjects largely missing from the current discussion over teacher pay.
Average National Teacher Salary
Before we begin let’s acknowledge what I think we can agree on: teacher pay needs to be raised. Most legislators agree that teacher pay needs to be raised. Over the last two years, teachers have received pay raises. Starting teachers had pay raised to $35,000. In addition, most teachers have received increases of 7.0 percent (2014-15) and 2.1 percent (2015-16). Gov. Pat McCrory has put forward a budget that would raise average salaries to above $50,000. Still, there is a sense that the job is not finished.
The current debate over teacher salary is driven largely by one statistic: national average teacher salary. The national average teacher salary figure is compiled from self-reported surveys sent out by the National Education Association (NEA) and then published in an annual NEA report, Rankings & Estimates. And let’s keep in mind that the NEA is the nation’s leading teachers union.
According to data compiled by NEA, the average salary for teachers in the U.S. in 2013-14 (the latest figures available) was $56,610. The average teacher salary in North Carolina in 2013-14 was $44,990. That figure ranks North Carolina 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The U.S. average national salary ($56,610) ranks 16th highest in the list. (More on that later.)
Press reports have claimed that in the late 1990s North Carolina was as high as 20th in average teacher pay, but over the past dozen years the state ranking has dropped into the mid-forties. North Carolina’s low ranking is the problem that needs to be addressed, they say. But are using the national average and teacher salary rankings really a good way to frame a policy question?
In my view the answer is: No, there are too many problems. The importance of the subject warrants that we discuss a few of them.
The national average is one figure that we’re told should apply to the entire country. In reality, it doesn’t. The national average figure doesn’t include variation in the cost of living. For example, it will naturally cost more to live in Boston or New York than Winston-Salem and Wilmington. The national average figure does not reflect those very real differences.
Nor does the national average figure consider local demographics. Because high growth states like North Carolina Georgia or Texas are gaining population, they are hiring many new teachers. Those changes will certainly impact the average teacher salary, because new teachers are of course lower down on the pay scale. Conversely, states that have more stable populations or even declining populations – like those in the Midwest or Northeast – will likely have more veteran teachers and thus higher average salaries.
Let’s start with terminology. The very term “national average” implies a middle-range figure, not too high, not too low, somewhere in between. But is it? Are we really looking at a middle-range figure? We all know high numbers can skew averages.
That looks like exactly what has happened with the states with the highest average teacher salaries. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, California and the District of Columbia all have average teacher salaries above $70,000. These figures have skewed the average salary upward.
A true “average” would rank the national average somewhere in the middle of the states. However, it’s not. The 2014 NEA Salary Rankings & Estimates says the national average teacher salary is $56,610. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have higher average salaries than the U.S. average. That means 36 of the 50 states have averages that are below the national average teacher salary. So it’s fair to ask: Is the national “average” really a mid-range figure?
In this case, the impact of the average national teacher salary figure produces a reverse “Lake Wobegone” effect where nearly three in four states are below average. So it’s a misleading statistic — but certainly a useful statistical gimmick for raising teacher salaries.
A national median salary figure is a better figure to use and of would of course represent a true middle in the ranking. The national median of teacher salaries in 2014 was $50,560. That’s more than $6,000 less than the “average.” Thus it would be less useful to groups churning for teacher pay raises, but it may be a more accurate barometer for everyone else to consider.
Recall that Gov. Pat McCrory’s current proposed budget would bring average North Carolina teacher salaries above $50,000.
But there are other non-statistical problems with the use of average national teacher salaries. Such figures represent figures without a real labor market. In reality the “average salary” exists nowhere. People live and work in specific individual labor markets. Average figures fail to recognize those realities. They also fail to recognize that North Carolina teachers are more likely impacted by teacher pay in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia and less so by some national average. Individual labor markets matter.
These shortcomings are worth noting. Also relevant are the many caveats mentioned throughout the report about the problems of creating comparable data when states have different compensation systems, have different definitions for key terms and are on different budget cycles.
And the last point is a key point. Since states are on different budget timelines, rankings are made sometimes before states have even considered their annual budgets. With such realities it is near impossible to create valid comparisons and rankings. To their credit, the authors of the rankings warn about the difficulties. Unfortunately, such caveats have been ignored by the media. The NEA survey is a snapshot in time. In my view the shortcomings “blur” the picture and cast a shadow over the validity of the rankings.
In the second part of this series, we will talk about how the public discussion over teacher pay has concentrated largely on percentage increases and very little on the system of how we actually pay teachers.
In part II of this three-part series on teacher pay, we show how the current problems with teacher pay are about more than dollars and cents. There are structural problems that prevent teachers and students from reaching their full potential. To read it, click here.
In Part III, increases in the cost of health and retirement benefits are highlighted. To read it, click here.