North Carolina, Your Teachers Are Worth More

Here’s something education reformers, union leaders and pretty much anyone paying attention can agree on: Teachers in North Carolina deserve a raise.

The situation is grim. While much has been written about the fact that the state now ranks 46th nationally in average teacher pay, more striking is that by freezing teacher salaries (compared to the national average, which is up during the same period), the Tar Heel state has effectively cut teacher pay by nearly 7.5 percent from 2008 to 2013, when adjusted for inflation (since 2002, this represents a staggering 15 percent reduction in salaries).

The state is poised for positive change. Recently, state legislators announced several controversial policy changes, including the elimination of teacher tenure, doing away with the standard pay bump for master’s degrees and relaxing statewide limits on class size. These measures are undoubtedly making teachers nervous—but they have the potential to push the state toward a teaching profession that truly celebrates and prioritizes quality instruction. By breaking down several barriers that have traditionally limited innovations with school staffing and structures, North Carolina could create the teaching profession of the future—one that rewards great results in the classroom, gives teachers a chance to enrich their careers by expanding their influence and leadership over time, and values their contributions to students and community versus credits earned and seat time.

But North Carolina will only succeed at moving the profession forward if these policy changes are accompanied by higher starting salaries across the board and better pay for high-performing teachers. Legislators and school leaders have a real opportunity to use these changes to begin elevating the teaching profession in their state, but they must seize it.

As I’ve written before, professionalizing teaching is not a rhetorical position—it’s a process. Creating the kind of profession that attracts top graduates, not only as a hiatus before starting their “real careers,” but in its own right—alongside lawyering, business and engineering—requires that North Carolina not only let go of the old step and lane salary model, quality-blind job security and innovation-stifling class size limits, but that they value teaching and teachers and pay them what they are worth.

Reinventing teacher compensation systems is complicated work. But in North Carolina, this much is simple: It’s time for a raise. As the economy recovers, opportunities for young professionals are growing, and North Carolina has seen a sizable population increase as professionals are drawn to the research triangle. The state’s public schools could be capitalizing on this influx of talent. At the very least, they must ward against bleeding the local schools of potential high performers by raising starting salaries right away.

As a first step, starting salaries of $35,000 immediately (2014-15) and $40,000 over time would be still well below the state’s median household income of $46,450, but they would represent a meaningful adjustment from the current $30,800. Next, North Carolina must right the salaries of early career teachers who have come into the system during the pay freeze. Under today’s system, it can take a teacher in North Carolina 16 years to reach $40,000. That’s simply too little, too late.

North Carolina’s largest investment should be reserved for those teachers who demonstrate their impact with kids. We should be rewarding successful teachers not only with longer contracts, but by ensuring they feel valued with significant pay increases (and meaningful leadership opportunities) for their efforts and impact. We must create a profession where success is rewarded and where teachers can afford to support a family.

While these investments will require trade-offs at the state and local level, North Carolina has proven it can be bold in re-shaping the teaching profession. Now is the time to finish the job.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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