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Teacher pay increase: The time is now

When the first state superintendent of public instruction, Calvin H. Wiley presented his report to the General Assembly in the mid 1800s, he indicated that teaching was an excellent profession for women. Why? His reasoning was that women could make more money teaching than working in a manufacturing enterprise. He also said it was good for taxpayers since you did not have to pay women as much as men.

Much has changed since Wiley’s day when high school teachers made more than elementary school teachers and whites made more than blacks. According to research noted in Educational World, the pay system we have in place today was first introduced in 1921 in Iowa and Colorado. This system centers on a pay scale based on teachers’ educational levels and years of service.

There have been many starts and stops related to creating a different system of merit pay and flirtations with various career ladder plans in many states. One of the longest running bonus systems was actually implemented right here in North Carolina. As a part of this system, teachers serving in a school which met or exceeded growth received bonuses. That system remained in place for more than 10 years.

Teacher compensation systems are complex. It is difficult to measure the long-term impact of a teacher in some cases. Student growth can be measured through testing in some areas but in other areas it can be more challenging. How do you measure the growth of students in arts, physical education, etc. to the point it can be quantified with a number?

How do we recruit teachers and keep teachers, especially in schools struggling to increase student growth and achievement? It is much easier to entice a teacher to go to a different school within the same district than to get a teacher to move to an isolated geographic area without access to the same amenities one can find in in more urban locations. At the same time, a teacher living in Caswell County may be willing to drive another 15 miles to teach in Alamance-Burlington Schools for a striking $3,000 increase in the local salary supplement.

Research about the recruitment, retention, and compensation systems also shows that base salary must be at level to make this profession attractive to qualified people. Potential educators also take into consideration working conditions, opportunity for growth or advancement, opportunities to work with others, sense of fairness about salary, the value society places on the work, and the location of jobs when they make a career choice.

We have yet to find a perfect way to pay teachers, and any system will have its weaknesses and strengths. However, last week I asked lawmakers to consider a wedding cake approach to teacher pay. A typical wedding cake has layers on which you build other layers. With appropriate planning of the first layer, you the can continue to add layers that enhance the cake.

Here is my proposal:
(pdf, 1.6mb)

Layer 1—Increased Salary for All Teachers
Layer 2—Teacher Leader Pay
Layer 3—Low-Performing Schools Recruitment Pay
Layer 4—Bonuses for Teachers in Schools that Exceed Growth

wedding cake

The number of teachers leaving North Carolina public school classrooms has increased in all but one year (2013-14) out of the last five. We won’t reverse this trend until we address the root causes of why teachers leave the classroom. We know that a teacher has the greatest impact on student achievement and growth so salaries must be competitive with those of other careers having similar responsibilities and education requirements. Sufficient salaries must be available to support those teachers who work in low-performing schools. In addition, effective teachers must be given opportunities for professional growth and additional responsibilities coupled with commensurate pay.

My wedding cake strategy represents a coordinated way of addressing many recruitment and retention concerns: low pay as compared to neighbor states, recruitment needs in harder-to-staff schools, the obligation to reward teachers who accept additional duties, and the need to reward teachers for outstanding performance.

North Carolina’s economy is on the rebound. I hope that state lawmakers will take advantage of this valuable opportunity to use some of the funding now available to address the critical issue of teacher pay in our state. The time is now.

Dr. June Atkinson

June Atkinson is the state superintendent of public instruction for North Carolina. Read her full profile here >>