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Next time, let’s listen to what teachers want

Every summer the North Carolina General Assembly debates teacher pay. And every year we ask the same question—who will get a raise and how much? And every time we get the same answer—not enough. This year was no different.

The legislature did approve a significant one-time salary increase with promises for a more over three years, and that’s a step in the right direction. However, without a truly comprehensive long-term strategy we’ll be right back here next year debating this issue all over again. We will never do enough for teachers following this pattern. Instead of subjecting teachers to a political debate every year, North Carolina needs a multi-year commitment, a goal and a series of principles upon which we can build a compensation system that works and makes teaching in North Carolina attractive again.

Moreover, any plan that would overhaul the current system or introduce new principles, will be met with skepticism unless teachers have a say in its creation. So, Think North Carolina First had the novel idea to ask teachers how they’d structure teacher compensation.

To do that we engaged the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), a national nonprofit based right here in North Carolina that has years of experience engaging teachers in policy debates. CTQ assembled a team of eight teacher-leaders from across North Carolina and from a variety of teaching backgrounds to debate teacher compensation and come up with recommendations for policymakers.

The eight teachers teach a variety of subjects in schools around the state. They came to teaching through traditional and alternative paths, including straight out of college, after service in the military, or after work in other professions. These teachers discussed their experiences, combed over the history and research on teacher compensation, and interacted online with hundreds of teaching colleagues to test and sharpen their ideas.

The resulting report, Transforming teachers’ careers and compensation in North Carolina: A vision from some of the state’s best teachers, offers a series of principles and policy recommendations that provide a starting place for a meaningful discussion of teacher pay in North Carolina.

The teachers call for policymakers to move beyond debates on pay that are disconnected from the evidence of what works and yield no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes toward their jobs. The system of teacher compensation they prescribe is based on what motivates teachers to perform at high levels and spread their expertise to colleagues—in the service of advancing student learning.

Their recommendations start with a series of six core principles on which a system could be built:

1. Teacher compensation must begin with sound base pay that values teaching as a profession and includes additional salary and bonuses that fuel leadership, innovation, and creativity;
2. The evaluation process for identifying, recognizing, and rewarding teacher leaders must be transparent and trustworthy;
3. Informal (as well as formal) leadership roles must be valued—and incentives for leading cannot be limited to financial ones;
4. Leadership opportunities must be available for all teachers, not just a few individuals;
5. Incentives and rewards, like those in top-performing nations, must focus on teachers who spread their expertise to others; and
6. School districts must create the right working conditions—including principals who know how to cultivate teacher leaders—in order to recruit and retain classroom experts in high-need schools.

Based on these core principles, the teachers call for a policy approach that reflects a longer-term approach—versus our current election-driven dynamic—to attracting, growing, and retaining teachers. An approach that provides incentives for practice and leadership that will advance student learning.

For this career and compensation system, the teacher leaders recommend a base pay ranging from $40,000 – $56,000 (the upper bound pegged to the national average) and 5 – 15 percent differentials for demonstrated performance and taking on additional roles. At the top of the scale, teacher leaders could earn $130,000—comparable to the salaries of accomplished nurses.

Ben Owens, a lead contributor, is a physics and math teacher at Tri-County Early College High School. He is also a former engineer with 20 years experience in a multinational corporation and a perspective informed by the expectations you find in most skilled industries: “I do expect that my colleagues and I should be compensated fairly in terms of base pay… And I expect that such base compensation be supplemented if I am able to demonstrate excellence… The keys to designing an effective teacher development and pay system will be the concepts of customization, flexibility, and a myriad of growth options—not ‘one-size-fits-all’ pathways.”

What Ben and his colleagues have created can be a starting point for future debates on teacher compensation in our state. These teachers stand ready to work with others who share their commitment to the teaching profession and they hope that state lawmakers will consider a new long-term comprehensive approach. Teachers deserve better than the yearly “will they or won’t they” pay debate.

Moreover, we should respect teachers’ experience and listen to their ideas for how we can improve their system of compensation in service of student learning. They work closely with students and families everyday, and they have good ideas about how to improve their profession. Policymakers don’t just owe our teachers better pay—they owe them a seat at the table.

Here is the full report:

Justin Guillory

Justin Guillory is the executive director of Think NC First.