By Leah Byers
- There are many problems with using the national average teacher pay as the sole benchmark of success in North Carolina.
- Instead of aiming for the national average, North Carolina should strive for an education funding system that rewards quality and innovation.
Education funding has been a heated topic in North Carolina again this year. Progressives and others on the Left say the state is underfunding schools and teachers. These claims come despite years of spending increases and teacher pay raises. When asked to provide specifics about what constitutes a proper level of funding, advocates are conspicuously hesitant to offer a number or range that they believe would be adequate.
This is especially true with regard to teacher salaries. Instead of setting a specific goal, progressives prefer to tie North Carolina teacher pay to the ever elusive “national average.” According to the National Education Association (NEA), the national average for 2016-2017 was $59,660. The NEA also reports average teacher pay by state; North Carolina ranked thirty-ninth that year with an average teacher salary of $49,970.
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious flaw with using the national average as a benchmark is that it fails to reflect differences in the cost of living. It costs more to live in Manhattan than in Manteo. Salaries reflect those differences. Comparing salaries across states is inherently biased towards places with higher costs of living. Adjusting for these considerations alone improves North Carolina’s rank to 29th, according to the John Locke Foundation.
In addition to ignoring cost of living differences, the NEA teacher salary data has other methodological problems that are often omitted when it is used as a point of reference. For instance, states with newer and younger teachers will have salaries skewed downward compared to states with relatively older and more experienced teaching populations.
But data nuances aside for a moment, there are other significant problems with using any average as a benchmark: it can be heavily distorted and it is a moving target.
One thing to consider is that averages are typically skewed towards outliers. In the case of teacher pay, the national average is skewed up by the top-ranking states at a disproportional rate. The national average of $59,660 is $22,242 less than the top-ranking state of New York, but only $16,735 more than the bottom-ranking state of Mississippi.
The practical result of this effect is that the data are not evenly distributed. Only 14 states (with D.C.) have average teacher salaries above the national average for that school year. Likewise, 37 states fall below the national average in teacher pay. Of course, this propels NEA’s arguments for higher teacher salaries. If, however, you are looking for the middle of the distribution, a more useful statistic would be the median. The median represents the middle value of a range of values. For the 2016-2017 school year, the median national teacher salary was $54,308.
Also keep in mind that an average is reliant upon the composition of the group of numbers that it represents. This may seem obvious, but it has practical implications for states that choose to set their sights on achieving the national average. As states below the average strive to get there by raising teacher pay, the average rises and becomes a moving target. The more states that raise their teacher’s pay, the higher the national average moves, thus chasing the elusive ‘national average’ becomes tantamount to a dog chasing its tail.
If North Carolina was the only state that used the national average as a target, it may not have too much of an impact and the goal may actually be attainable. But, let’s not forget who is leading the effort to set the national average as the goal in North Carolina: The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the state affiliate of the NEA. The NEA has similar chapters in all 50 states.
In 2017, the NEA ranked North Carolina 39th in the nation in average teacher pay. Let’s look at the advocacy positions of NEA chapters in states with similar rankings.
Kansas was ranked 40th in the same year. The Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), in their most recent published legislative agenda, states that “KNEA supports funding increases that allow school districts to increase teacher compensation to the national average over a period of not more than five years.”
Ranked 41st, the Missouri NEA chapter’s legislative platform says, “The Association urges the General Assembly to continue to increase funding through the state foundation formula to ensure that no Missouri district has an average teacher salary below the national average.”
Clearly, the obsession with the national average is not limited to North Carolina, nor is it a new issue. Ten years ago, Democrats controlled the General Assembly and governorship. Even in the face of the recession, then-Governor Mike Easley continued to pursue the arbitrary goal of reaching the illusory goal of the national average.
There are many elements to take into consideration in the discussion around teacher compensation. State comparisons can be a useful tool in policy analysis, but they are rarely sufficient as a stand-alone goal. This is especially true when the interest group establishing the target has a vested interest in an ever-rising national average teacher salary.
Teachers, as state employees, should receive adequate compensation for the work they do. The conversation is on-going about how best to pay teachers and what standard to use to determine measurable progress. There are good reasons to move away from relying on the “national average” as the sole measure of success.
Instead, North Carolina should ask what is the best way to pay teachers and raise student achievement? North Carolina should be looking for ways to reward teacher quality and incentivize innovation – not aiming for the moving target of national average.