Time to rethink North Carolina’s teacher compensation model

What would you think if you visited a local school and saw every teacher using transparencies on overhead projectors? You might assume you had time-traveled to an era when big hair and leg warmers were in vogue. You might wonder, where are the interactive whiteboards and touchscreens that help teachers personalize students’ learning? Similarly, our one-size-fits-all salary schedule for teachers is a model whose usefulness has come and gone.

This summer, the North Carolina General Assembly approved a budget that would increase teacher and instructional staff salaries by an average of 4.7 percent. While this is a welcome boost, it perpetuates a pay model that was appropriate for a different age, just like cellophane and viewgraphs. Now is the time to transform our teacher compensation model to benefit our state’s students and communities as they seek to thrive in a global economy.

This past year, I had the privilege to work with the Center for Teaching Quality and a team of accomplished North Carolina teachers to develop recommendations about alternatives to this compensation model. After extensive research of systems used across the nation and world, analysis of our own classroom experiences, and input from hundreds of educators from across the state, we developed the following recommendations:

First, we propose establishing a more competitive professional base pay, consistent with the excellence we expect from teachers. We also recommend providing a system that values and rewards teachers who demonstrate superior performance and leadership. And we propose more formal and informal leadership pathways that help systems maximize teachers’ expertise.

We based our recommendations on six key principles:

  1. Teacher compensation must begin with sound base pay that values teaching as a profession and includes additional salary and bonuses that fuel leadership, innovation, and creativity;
  2. The evaluation process for identifying, recognizing, and rewarding teacher leaders must be transparent and trustworthy;
  3. Informal and formal leadership roles must be valued—and incentives for leading cannot be limited to financial ones;
  4. Leadership opportunities must be available for all teachers;
  5. Incentives and rewards, like those in top-performing nations, must focus on teachers who spread their expertise; and
  6. School districts must create the right working conditions—including principals who know how to cultivate teacher leaders—in order to recruit and retain classroom experts in high-need schools.

These findings emphasize greater career choice and working conditions that boost teacher learning and leadership for students’ benefit. We do not shy away from the premise that high-performing teachers deserve additional compensation. At the same time, we assert that many merit pay models do not translate into the improvements their designers imagine because they ignore research about what motivates people to perform at high levels. Hint: it’s more than just pay.

It’s no coincidence that this topic is getting attention around the country and now is the time for North Carolina to lead on this important issue. By embracing the above recommendations and doing more than simply offering a pay increase, we have the chance to truly transform our teaching profession.

Those who work with our state’s children every day face challenges and complexities that were unimaginable a generation ago. We can either ignore this reality by assuming that our legacy systems will adequately address these challenges, or we can boldly embrace more sophisticated approaches to meet these demands head-on. It’s time for a retooled teacher career pathway and professional compensation model that improves how we attract, keep, and strengthen high-quality teachers.

The above framework serves as a potential starting point for educators and policymakers in our state to work together to benefit our students in the long run while bridging the long-standing communication gap between state lawmakers and the teaching professionals.

It’s fine to reminisce about the days when overhead projectors were a big deal, or dig the leg warmers out of the closet. But clinging to out-of-date teaching policies can have serious repercussions for our students. Together, we can achieve the shifts necessary to secure a brighter future for our communities and state.

Ben Owens spent 20 years as an engineer in industry before becoming a math and physics teacher at Tri-County Early College High School in the Murphy. He is the 2016 North Carolina Science Technology & Mathematics Center’s 9-16 Outstanding Educator, a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, TeachStrong Ambassador, and a Virtual Community Organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality.

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