Comprehensive vision needed to fix the teacher salary crisis

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:36 AM

It’s rare these days to find much consensus on anything related to public education in North Carolina. That’s why it’s encouraging to see such widespread agreement that our state is truly in the midst of a teacher salary crisis. Where there’s less agreement is on what we should do about it.

Last month, state leaders announced a plan to raise base pay for starting teachers to $35,000 by 2015, but left the state’s underlying salary schedule intact. This month, the Educator Effectiveness and Compensation Task Force has held its first meeting to consider alternatives to the statewide schedule. 

As task force members, lawmakers and advocates work toward the 2014 legislative session, what we’re likely to see is a pile of piecemeal proposals -- starting salaries here, performance bonuses there. What we should aim for instead is a comprehensive vision of an updated compensation system -- one that’s built to improve student learning, by increasing the chances that every student has an excellent teacher.  

Toward that goal, we know a few things from research and national best practice that ought to guide policymakers’ and advocates’ work. 

North Carolina needs salary increases for teachers at all levels of experience. Increasing salaries for early-career teachers is a crucial first step, because we’re losing the largest number of teachers in those years, and our schools must compete with neighboring states for top graduates.

But all North Carolina teachers have seen their wages drop an average of 16 percent over the past decade. Research confirms that pay matters -- to everyone. But competitive salaries matter even more to top performers -- exactly the teachers North Carolina schools can’t afford to lose.

Understand what performance pay can and can’t do. Research has convincingly shown that merit bonuses won’t make teachers more effective. Anyone who has been in a public school recently knows that most teachers are working their tails off, and a bonus aimed at encouraging them to work harder is just insulting.

On the other hand, rewarding success can change who enters and stays in the profession -- by attracting more high-potential candidates and encouraging great teachers to stick around. And improving recruitment and retention among top-performers increases performance overall.

But to work well, performance-driven compensation must be fair, sustainable, and encourage leadership and collaboration. In contrast to current law -- a 25 percent cap on the number of teachers who can earn just $5,000 over four years -- successful programs commit real money to teachers who show consistent excellence, and give them meaningful opportunities to grow and lead in their careers. 

There may be a bright side to North Carolina’s current salary crisis. It presents a great opportunity to make overdue investments in our state’s great teachers, based on factors that matter most to students’ success. But we must keep that big picture in mind, and not get distracted by piecemeal plans that only address – or appear to address – one part of a very big problem.

Julie Kowal is executive director of CarolinaCAN: The North Carolina Campaign for Achievement Now.