Changes needed to keep great teachers in classrooms

Jun. 27, 2014 @ 07:10 AM

While this is not likely to come as news to any of us who have ever sat in a classroom, the quality of teachers matters a lot -- and not just because they can make a dull subject more interesting.  The truth is that students who are assigned to our best teachers will learn twice as much in any given school year as students assigned to our weakest.  That’s a huge difference -- which perhaps explains why so many parents are willing to turn somersaults to make sure their child is assigned to the right teacher.

The value to our communities of these “powerhouse” teachers cannot be overstated.  In large enough numbers and concentrated in the right schools, they can overcome the terrible educational deficits of children who grow up in poverty.

In North Carolina, there’s work to be done to help identify, grow and retain quality teachers. In our annual State Teacher Policy Yearbook, we gave North Carolina a grade of C on its current policies in this regard.  For example, current policy prevents districts from paying powerhouse teachers a higher salary. In addition, there are too few options for North Carolina teachers to advance in the teaching profession without leaving it.

When great teachers aren’t rewarded for their efforts or given the opportunity to spread their wings, many choose to seek employment elsewhere.  In fact, the number of North Carolina teachers who left for other jobs hit a five-year high in the 2012-2013 school year, according to a recent state report on teacher turnover.

We’re encouraged by a proposal out of the governor’s office which would tackle the need to keep great teachers in the classroom. This proposal makes it possible for teachers who are consistently rated at the top on annual evaluations to earn at least 10 percent higher salaries, even up to 25 percent or more by also taking on leadership responsibilities with their colleagues.

Smartly, the intention is to pilot this idea in 16 North Carolina school districts before going statewide. Even smarter (and unlike last year’s law which was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by a North Carolina judge), it puts local schools and districts in the driver’s seat, giving them the flexibility they desperately need to design a salary structure that works for them.  For example, a fast-growing district facing teacher shortages could pay its highly effective teachers a higher salary in return for taking on a bigger class size.  The same goes for districts which need to persuade their best teachers to work in their toughest schools or be able to recruit individuals qualified to teach science and math teachers -- teachers who are continually in short supply because of the better salaries they can earn elsewhere. 

These are real, powerful incentives -- higher pay plus opportunities for career advancement -- that make great educators feel valued.   

But here’s another reason why it is so important to change how we pay teachers.  Though we need to make teaching an attractive option to talented college students, the current salary structure in almost all states, particularly North Carolina, fails to do so.  Not only is pay generally too low, its structure conveys a negative message about how school systems treat their talent.  No matter what teachers are able to achieve with students, everyone is paid the same.  Professions which are successful recruiting top talent make it clear that from the outset that if you’re really good at your job, you will be honored and rewarded with higher pay. Teaching should not be the exception to that common-sense proposition. 

The 2014 legislative session is winding down, but there’s still time for legislators to act.  North Carolina teachers deserve the support they need to continue teaching for years to come.

Kate Walsh is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for reforms in a broad range of teacher policies at the federal, state and local levels in order to increase the number of effective teachers.