Law of Averages: There Are Better Ways to Measure Teacher Salaries Than State or National Averages

With the election season on the doorstep, it is reasonable to think that public school funding will be among the top issues raised at candidate forums, and specifically teacher pay will be one issue that is likely to receive the lion’s share of attention.

Teacher pay is a complex issue in North Carolina that cannot be easily explained. The state pays a base salary from sales and income taxes. Most counties provide funding for their local school district to pay a supplemental income to teachers from real estate and local sales taxes. A teacher’s annual base salary is based on the number of years served, with additional compensation for certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and advanced degrees (if the degrees were conferred or started before 2013). Finally, salary is adjusted for the number of months worked. Most teachers work 10 months, but some work 11 or 12.

How all that shakes out for individuals is an increasingly complicated exercise that has not become any easier in recent years. When headlines announce that teachers will receive a large percentage raise from the state, teachers often scratch their heads in wonder when they read their pay stubs months later because their raise, if they received one at all, was not as high as the announced percentage.

The same goes for average salaries. When education and legislative leaders celebrated the state’s average teacher annual salary moving past the $50,000 benchmark in April, many teachers spoke up to say they were not close to $50,000. That’s the trouble with averages because half the teachers on the scale are below that number and half are above.

With two sides to any story, it’s hard to know who is telling the truth. In this case both sides are, but each side is telling the part of the truth that supports its goals. Let’s examine these truths.

Teacher Pay Increases

  • As shown in Fig. 1 below, 10 years ago the 2008-09 average statewide salary was $48,454 compared to $51,214 in 2017-18, or a 5.7 percent increase, but when 2013-14 is compared to 2017-18, there’s a 13.8 percent increase. That’s because average teacher salary actually declined 7.1 percent between 2008-9 and 2013-14. (NC Department of Public Instruction: “Highlights of the North Carolina State Budget” February 2018, Page 17).
  • More than half of the 13.8 percent increase since 2013-14 was recovering the gains lost between 2008-9 and 2013-14.
  • Raises have not always been applied equally throughout the pay scale; sometimes the raise is weighted towards beginning and mid-career teachers.
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    As a result, as in 2018, some teachers might receive more than a 10 percent increase over last year’s pay, while others receive no raise at all. This year many early-career and late-career teachers received little to no raises.

Average Salary Math

  • The statewide average teaching salary has risen thanks to successive annual salary increases by the General Assembly and local boards of county commissioners.
  • How much that average has increased depends on how far back one looks and whether the salaries are adjusted for inflation.
  • The statewide average annual salary for teachers crossed $50,000 this year, following several years of steady increases in an effort to get North Carolina closer to the national average teacher salary.
  • The average moved up because of increased pay, but also because the difference between starting pay and the highest annual salary got smaller. The scale was also reduced from 31 years to 25 so teachers would reach the highest annual salary 6 years earlier.
  • The average annual salary includes all sources of compensation for teachers such as supplements for National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification, and local salary supplements paid by county governments from real estate tax revenue.
  • Since local supplements are often calculated as a percentage of a teacher’s state salary, as the state spending on salaries increases, so does the county spending.

The National Average Benchmark

  • In April, North Carolina ranked 39th in the nation for average teacher pay according to the National Education Association’s Annual Rankings and Estimates report (Page 26), which is widely accepted as a credible ranking. The state’s rank was an improvement over the previous year’s rank of 41.
  • Calculating average statewide salaries varies by state and is affected by each state’s average cost of living, whether the state allows collective bargaining through unions, among others. North Carolina does not have a teachers union.
  • Using the national average is acceptable to measure how North Carolina compares to the rest of the nation but eclipsing the national average is not a good compensation policy because the average doesn’t consider the true knowledge and expertise teachers bring to the profession.

The key takeaway from this is that while overall spending on teacher salaries continues to climb each year, the amount teachers actually receive in their pay checks may not.

Further, a healthy portion of the overall salary spending increase goes to pay for new teaching positions each year. North Carolina continues to be an attractive place to raise a family, and people from all over the country are relocating here. Although not every district is growing, the overall increase in the number of public school students means there’s a need to hire more teachers as well.

Keep in mind, too, that the General Assembly has also added several pay bonuses based on student performance. These are treated as rewards rather than incentives, and they are certainly welcomed and appreciated by the teachers who earn them. These bonuses are also used to calculate both the aggregate amount spent on salaries, and the average pay teachers will receive. There’s nothing wrong with that, but these are windfall amounts rather than steady salary increases.

As future legislatures consider how best to pay teachers, it would be worthwhile to compare the teacher salary schedule to other professions which have similar minimum entry requirements such as earning a bachelor’s degree with a preservice practicum, passing a high-stakes qualifying exam, obtaining licensure, and completing a multi-year, on-the-job monitored induction phase. In addition to that, teachers must also earn continuing education credits to periodically renew their licenses.

Aligning pay rates with similar professions makes sense because many college students are choosing non-teaching majors and current teachers are leaving the profession for higher-paying private sector careers.

When compared to professions with similar minimum standards the evidences will show what all teachers already know – that teachers are considerably underpaid, even when their salaries are corrected for 10 months of employment. If the salary scale were based on private sector benchmarks there would be no urgency to match or surpass any other average pay metric.

This election season, encourage candidates to consider new ways to calculate teacher pay by using comparisons to metrics which value professional credentials and expertise.

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