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Teacher pay deserves reasoned debate

Should public schoolteachers be compensated as professionals? All four panelists at a recent “Hometown Debate” staged at the Old Post Office Playhouse in Newton agreed that teachers should, indeed, be treated this way. But the panelists didn’t all mean the same thing by “compensated as professionals.”

I’ll explain their dispute in just a moment. But it’s worth pausing to note that political disagreements often stem from differences in definitions.

There are three elements to any argument: definition of terms, asserted facts, and then logical reasoning from those facts to a conclusion. When Jack differs from Jill, he often rushes to challenge her assertions of facts as false or dishonest and her reasoning as illogical. He may even call her “ignorant,” “lying,” or “stupid,” respectively. Often, however, the disagreement really stems from the different ways the two define their terms. Putting those different definitions on the table can produce a more civil, respectful, and productive discussion.

The debate in Newton, co-hosted by the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership and the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce, was just such a discussion. The panelists didn’t call each other names. But they did disagree — a lot.

Mark Jewell, a former teacher and current president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, argued that teachers aren’t being paid as professionals because average salaries are too low. “When folks are making $35,000 … and putting in 10-hour workdays, and then going to their second job at the mall afterwards, then coming home and grading papers, and then doing weekend activities at the school, that’s exhaustion,” Jewell said. “That’s when we burn out, and it’s not being paid as a professional there.”

Terry Stoops, a former teacher who directs education studies for the John Locke Foundation, argued that traditional teacher salary schedules, centered on years of tenure and forms of credentials, bear little resemblance to the way professionals such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and accountants are paid.

“If you’re a teacher and performing very well, you might get paid less than the person down the hall just because they’ve been in the profession longer,” Stoops said. “That sends a bad signal to those teachers that are in the profession that just because someone has spent longer in the system they’re making more, when it’s completely disassociated with student performance.”

Kris Nordstorm, an education policy consultant with the North Carolina Justice Center, argued that some pay differentials beyond tenure and credentials made sense to him, including paying more when teachers take on more duties, teach hard-to-staff subjects such as calculus and physics, or work in hard-to-staff schools with high concentrations of poor students. But “performance pay — when you pay a teacher based on a test — there’s not really any evidence it’s an effective way of paying teachers,” Nordstrom said.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who chairs both the K-12 Education and the Education Apropriations committees in the North Carolina House, agreed that there are many possible ways to vary pay. “We certainly don’t want to get into a situation, in my opinion, where additional pay is based solely on test outcomes,” Horn said.

But he argued that student growth measures deserve a place alongside the other forms of differentiated pay that Nordstrom cited, just as other professions employ a combination of consumer demand, extra effort, individual performance measures, and group performance measures in determining what professionals are paid.

My own view is that, while no one has yet produced “the” optimal plan for paying teachers, Horn and Stoops are right about its likely contents. Teachers ought to be able to progress in their profession, and make more money, by becoming lead teachers, by filling hard-to-staff jobs, by delivering sustained high performance in student growth, and by working in teams (within grades, perhaps, rather than entire schools) to produce better-than-average student growth.

Structuring pay around years of experience and degrees awarded was a bad idea. I’m glad North Carolina is moving away from it. Now, let’s talk more about where it ought to go.

Editor’s Note: The John William Pope Foundation supports the work of EdNC.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.