Coorporate Pay Models Won’t Work in Schools


I know a young middle school math teacher who leaves work every day and pulls a shift working at Chick-fil-A to help her pay off her student loans. She’s single with no kids and obviously barely getting by. I wonder how she has energy to teach some days. And every time teacher pay comes up in the legislature I think about her.

Everyone in North Carolina seems to be talking about teacher pay, including legislators. I’m going to jump right in and say that I believe North Carolina is paying its teachers too little.  From conversations with my colleagues in Raleigh, I think most Representatives of both parties agree with me.

It has been widely reported that North Carolina’s average teacher salary is 46th in the nation. Perhaps more strikingly, any teacher who leaves to work in Virginia, Tennessee, or South Carolina will automatically get at least a $1000 raise. Move to Georgia and you’ll make $6880 more on average.

Based on the state salary schedule, teachers currently make $30,800 per year for their first five years. In their sixth year, they get a whopping $420 raise. Currently, 18% of teachers statewide are paid at the lowest step level. It would take 16 years for them to make $40,000. In Orange, Durham, and Chapel Hill school systems, our local teachers fare a little better because our districts pay local supplements on top of the state minimum.

Governor McCrory and Republican legislative leaders have announced a plan to raise starting teacher pay to $35,000 over the next two years.  This is a great first step, and something I would like to support because it will help that middle school teacher that I mentioned above.

However, this plan would worsen the problem of new teachers being stuck without a raise for years. If we implement this plan without also giving other teachers a raise, new teachers will be stuck at $35,000 until their 10th year in the classroom.

While Republicans say that they have more announcements to come about teacher compensation, they seem to have no agreement about what they want to do. One thing that I have heard consistently is that there will not be an across the board pay raise for teachers. Instead, there is lots of talk about “incentive” pay.

The Republicans’ first incentive plan is falling flat all across the state. In the last budget, they included funds to give 25% of teachers a $500 raise this year. In exchange for the raise, teachers would have to give up their current contract for a new one that makes it easier for them to be terminated.  This plan has met with almost universal scorn from educators who suggest that it will pit teachers against one another in competition when education needs to be a collaborative process.  About 35% of school districts in North Carolina have taken a stand against this plan, including Orange, Chapel Hill, and Durham.  The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools initially offered the raise to about 200 teachers, but 95% turned it down.

A legislative panel on teacher compensation has been studying other models for teacher incentives. A model from Pitt County that was designed to pay teachers more for working in low performing schools has failed and been abandoned. A model in Guilford County that tries to attract teachers to hard to fill positions (high school math, low-performing schools, etc.) seems to be working a bit better. But incentives for taking a more demanding assignment will never ensure that every teacher receives a raise.

The type of incentive plan that Republicans seem to want most is one that pays teachers for excellent performance. They often make the argument that teacher compensation needs to work more like business compensation models.  They want to use performance metrics, largely based on standardized test performance, to determine which teachers deserve more money.  Although many places around the country have tried to do this, there isn’t much evidence that it has worked anywhere to date.

In my view, the attempt to use a corporate pay model for teachers has a number of fundamental problems.  The biggest of these is that government pay has never been able to compete with corporate pay.  Although we all mock the idea at times, everyone knows that if you take a government job you get less money but more security.  Teachers want security not because they couldn’t find other jobs, but because they are dedicated to their craft and often want to establish a long career in one school or community.  Helping to build and sustain a school’s culture over many years is part of what most teachers love about their career.

Another flaw is that even in corporate America rank-and-sort compensation programs don’t seem to work very well. Microsoft has been the most high profile company to use that type of compensation system.  The computing giant just abandoned that compensation plan and suggested that the internal competition it created may have a significant factor in the company’s slow growth over the last decade.  They want their employees working collaboratively and creatively, and I would suggest that teachers also flourish in that type of environment.

I believe that we should boost the pay of North Carolina’s teachers to the national average, as we did for a few years in the 90’s.  To do so, we’ll have to provide some across the board raises over the next few years.  Republicans who don’t want to do that might be willing to in exchange for Democrats supporting some type of incentive plan.

I am more willing to consider higher rates of pay for teachers working in hard to fill positions or schools.  For me to get behind a broader incentive plan, I want it to be available to every teacher, I want to ensure that it is based on measures beyond standardized test scores, and I want it to encourage cooperation and not competition within a school.

Legislators are going to have a hard time coming to consensus about how to boost teacher pay. But we can’t do nothing, because North Carolinians certainly have a consensus that our teachers deserve better than what they’re paid now.  As a Democrat, I probably won’t have much voice in this spring’s short session when we debate teacher compensation, but as a career public school educator I will try to bring some perspective from people in the field like my friend who moonlights at Chick-fil-A.

Adapted from Graig’s column in the News of Orange.