Teacher pay will remain on the table as an issue until our leaders come to understand the issues involved | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Tom Campbell, of NC Spin recently suggest that "Let's take teacher pay off the table." No he was not suggesting that the issue of teacher pay be ignored, but quite the opposite...that it be "settled" once and for all. To which we say: "ain't gonna happen."

    There are at least three reasons teacher pay is going to be a key issue for the foreseeable future in North Carolina. First and foremost, in our opinion, it is a crucial issue. Teachers are not paid sufficiently in North Carolina and until that is corrected it will remain a major issue. The reason this is so is simple: Teaching is vitally important to every parent, grandparent and most business people in this state. It's not so much that this constituency has an accurate grasp on the numbers involved in assessing what the pay scale should be but rather it is an aspirational issue for them. They want good schools for their children and grandchildren and employers want competent employees. Those aspirations are not going to diminish. Thus, the issue will be with us for some time to come. It will be on the table, until it is addressed and even then it will return as the political tides ebb and flow.

    The second reason teacher pay is going to be a key issue is because of Medicaid. The government paid health program for poor people is the fastest growing segment of the state's budge. Becki Gray, with the Carolina Journal breaks the numbers down and reports that Medicaid has grown by 90 percent for the past decade. Simply put, North Carolina is struggling with the question of whether teacher pay is more important than health care for poor people, many of whom are the children those teachers teach every day.

    We'll spare you the details (which you can get in Gray's article) but if you look at the trend lines for Medicaid spending you see that if the trends continue as they have been for the last decade that within ten years the state will simply go broke. Forget about pay raises. It will be an issue of whether continue to educate our children, much less pay teachers well. The state simply cannot sustain what it has been doing. Until "The Medicaid Problem" is solved the state is not going to be able to adequately address teacher salaries.

    Nonetheless, even if the Medicaid problem is solved, or mitigated, and even if the state had an extra few billion dollars to put into teacher salaries that is not going to "take teacher salaries off the table." In fact it will exacerbate the issue.

    The reason for this is simple. The current leadership in control of the General Assembly does not have a clue how to reform teacher pay, regardless of the amount of money that might would be available.

    The current GOP leadership is wondering in the swamp of merit pay for teachers. The alligators will get them before they get out of that swamp unless they come to realize that merit pay for teachers has never worked anywhere and never will work. And that is true for a reason few realize.

    The reason merit pay will never work for teachers is because the concept of merit pay is that only a few deserve to be paid significantly more than the rest while the exact opposite is true in reality in most schools. Don't get hung up with these numbers, but let us use them to make a point. Suppose in reality that the quality of teachers in our schools is not a bell-shaped curve. Suppose it is a shaped more like a hockey stick. That is, the overwhelming majority of our teachers do a good job. And the difference between those in the "top quartile" and the next to the top quartile is not sufficient enough to be measurable with the current assessment systems. So how are you going to make a merit pay system work that gives higher pay to 25% when the difference between the teacher at the bottom of the 25% batch is indistinguishable from the teacher at the 50% mark? Put another way, how do you draw a line between teacher 25 and teacher 26 in a list rank according to some presumed measure of quality? How do you justify giving Teacher 25 a raise and not giving Teacher 26 a raise?

    I'm reminded when we talk about how to distinguish quality among teachers of the analogy that it would be very difficult to determine which Olympians are best if you have a stop watch that only measured minutes and seconds. They have to use timers that to the hundredths of a second.

    The reality, in my experience, is that in an honest merit pay system somewhere between 80 and 90% of the teachers in any given school would deserve merit pay as much as the "top 10" would.

    Unless and until we have much more effective teacher assessment instruments merit pay simply is not going to work. It does not work in state government, the University system, the Community College system and in fact it does not work in private schools.

    The state of North Carolina has ever even been able to correlate "extra pay" for high-demand/low-supply teaching categories.

    Common sense tells us that if teachers in one field (ex. Math or science) can make significantly more money in private industry, the supply/demand theory would say you have to pay them more than teachers in low-demand/high-supply fields. For example, we know a private school that pays the Art Teacher half as much as they pay the AP Math teacher. And guess what. The turnover rate with their math teachers is higher than it is with the art teachers.

    Then there is the merit pay Dragon Killer. As a teacher I would accept merit pay if I could choose my students. But if I have to take whatever students I am assigned then don't try to pay me less because my test scores are not as good as the teacher across the hall who get the "best" kids. These people who call for basing teacher pay on student performance probably also believe you can judge the quality of a doctor by how many patients die. They fail to realize some cases, as with some classes of students, are much more difficult to get high bubble sheet scores from than others.

    But even if we had an adequate assessment system to distinguish between teachers teacher pay would still be an issue. This is true because the people who make the decisions about how much money is going to be put into teacher salaries have other priorities that get more favor than teacher pay.

    The proof this is to simply consider where the money goes. A classroom of 25 students brings in to the school system a little over $200,000. And that is "current expense" which does not include capital expenditures for buildings and equipment etc. Now think about that. No public school classroom teacher in North Carolina makes $100,000 for teaching 25 kids. More like $65K at best. So where does the other $135,000 go? The truth is, when there is "new money" doled out it goes for many other things rather than teacher salaries.

    And a closing word to those who don't think teachers should be paid for advanced degrees. No, a teacher with a masters, sixth year or doctorate is not necessarily a better teacher than one with a B.S. But what it does reflect is dedication and initiative. Those traits are desirable in teachers. Those that have the initiative to get a graduate degree, as well as National Board Certification, have qualities that we should seek to reward.

    Delma Blinson writes the "Teacher's Desk" column for our friend in the local publishing business: The Beaufort Observer. His concentration is in the area of his expertise - the education of our youth. He is a former teacher, principal, superintendent and university professor.
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