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N.C. leaders: Invest now to magnify the impact of great teachers on students, peers

North Carolina will never make the educational strides it needs until the best educators have far greater impact, for a lot more pay. Last year, state leaders correctly raised abysmally low base salaries for early-career teachers, with a promise of more.

But let’s be honest: Raising base pay for some is barely playing catch-up. States outpacing North Carolina will likely increase salaries, too.

Most important, base pay bumps for early-career teachers don’t empower excellent teachers, many of whom are veterans, to lead from the classroom — reaching more students and helping peers excel.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The state can encourage districts to offer excellent teachers substantially higher pay for reaching more students and leading peers toward excellence, and reward others for joining teams led by these teachers. Educators can advance their careers while teaching, and more students can experience excellent instruction.

Students need that excellent teaching, consistently. Students starting behind need multiple years of high-growth learning to catch up. No matter where they start, all students deserve the chance to leap further ahead and gain the problem-solving skills that great teachers develop so well.

State leaders can transform North Carolina by funding a diverse set of districts to design financially sustainable, scalable advanced pay systems that reward excellent teachers for reach and leadership.

Districts should design systems that fit their needs. But state policymakers need to pinpoint the destination they want districts to reach. Otherwise, they will end up far afield.

To see why, look no further than the responses of 76 districts to last year’s legislation calling for differentiated pay plans.

These responses would likely lead to a tiny impact on teaching excellence and student outcomes.

Just 21 plans include any kind of advanced role. Among those, only 14 stated how much more teachers could earn; the median maximum supplement proposed for roles is just $1,000.

Most tellingly: Only two districts proposed using advanced roles to give more students access to highly effective teachers. And no district explained how its plan would be sustainable with recurring budgets—the only way to ensure that pay supplements become a permanent tool for districts and a predictable opportunity for teachers.

Policymakers can elicit much stronger plans with three guideposts:

  1. Set state goals to ensure payoffs for teachers, students and the economy. First, demand that at least 75 percent of students gain access to excellent teachers who are formally accountable for their learning. Second, require substantial supplements that will impact recruiting and retention—at least $5,000 to $25,000—for great teachers who take accountability for more students and for leading peers successfully. Third, require districts to give teacher-leaders time at school to plan instruction for more students and lead and develop other teachers, to give everyone a shot at excellence.
  2. Make local control really local. Let districts, and teachers and principals in each school, tailor advanced roles, craft schedules for team leaders to help every teacher succeed, and reallocate budgets to fund higher pay. Eliminate the state’s large financial penalty when schools swap positions to fund advanced roles.
  3. Fund temporary transition costs, not temporary pay. Districts can fund substantial pay supplements for advanced roles by reallocating recurring dollars. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund and similar initiatives demonstrate that when temporary funds can be used directly for pay, districts do not create sustainable, advanced roles. Pay disappears when grants end. While we strongly support increasing the recurring funding districts receive, funding pay supplements temporarily signals that teaching excellence is expendable. In contrast, the costs of transitioning to new staffing models are temporary, and appropriate for temporary funding. Likewise, the state should support initial investments in digital instruction that lets excellent teachers and their teams extend their reach to more students.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus are among several districts nationally implementing plans like this, creating what we call an “Opportunity Culture.” In Charlotte, for example, excellent teachers continue to teach, lead teams with time to collaborate and help others improve, and earn supplements up to $23,000—50 percent above average N.C. teacher pay. Teachers have flocked to these positions, even in high-poverty schools. Districts’ ability to scale up such roles remains limited, though, until N.C. removes its financial penalty for locally determined position swaps.

Watch more Opportunity Culture videos here.

State leaders can initiate the same for all N.C. teachers and students, if they focus on the destination: giving all students access to excellent teaching, consistently. That’s what will move North Carolina to the top, with teachers, students and the economy reaping the benefits.

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel are the co-directors of Public Impact and founders of the Opportunity Culture initiative.