Spending $34.2 billion in two years? That’s a tall order. But not for North Carolina legislators, who recently passed Senate Bill 622 (our state budget) out of the Senate and on to the House. As part of that budget, the Department of Public Instruction stands to receive roughly $6.7 billion a year.
One component of the budget addresses salary schedules for all public education employees, including teachers. While North Carolina is a “right to work state” (meaning that no official education unions negotiate teacher pay), state lawmakers nevertheless employ an archaic method to determine teacher salaries—looking at years of teaching experience and certifications or degrees. This formula is at odds with the way compensation is determined in almost all private-sector jobs, where income is linked to job performance. But in our schools, teacher pay is unaffected by student learning.
This practice flies in the face of most research on performance: specifically, that student achievement is directly linked to the ability of the classroom teacher. In fact, a teacher’s knowledge and skills are the most important in-school factors for learning.
What can we do? Changing entrenched policies is not for the faint of heart. When it comes to market-based policies, even the “Terminator” has found the California education establishment unmoved by his political muscle. Governor Schwarzenegger‘s proposal to use evaluations and test scores to measure teacher performance would result in more money for the best teachers. But in spite of the good sense behind his merit pay proposal, stiff political opposition leaves many wondering if it will survive the year.
North Carolina policy makers have miles to go before they reach this kind of innovative thinking. Some credit goes to former Governor Jim Hunt for his involvement (1987-1997) with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But, while teachers attaining National Board Certification receive a 12% increase in salary, their pay is still not linked to student learning.
Ultimately, if the mission of our schools is to teach our students well, then our state budget must reflect this priority. We should evaluate teachers based on what takes place in the classroom. Accountability for performance is common in the marketplace: Why should the teaching field be any different? Policy makers bemoan the fact that the best and brightest are rarely attracted to the teaching profession anymore, but they fail to notice that our system rewards mediocrity. With merit pay, a good teacher will make more than his less effective colleague, but that is as it should be. As longtime Detroit Free Press columnist Bob Talbert said, “Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more.”
This high cost is reflected in falling graduation rates, along with poor performance on a variety of academic measures. And until we embrace the “radical” idea of evaluating teachers based on outputs (student achievement) rather than just inputs (years teaching and certificates earned), fundamental changes in student achievement will continue to elude us.
Lindalyn Kakadelis is the director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.