North Carolina’s policymakers have developed a consistent two-part approach to improving public schools: take away with one hand and punish with the other. Aside from the implicit paradox involved in punishing children, teachers, and schools while simultaneously removing their financial supports, perhaps the most troubling aspect of this approach is that it seriously demeans teaching as profession.
Holding teaching up as one of the highest status professions is perhaps the most critical policy objective for lawmakers in terms of improving the quality of education in the state. High quality teaching is universally regarded as the most effective way to improve student achievement. This only makes sense – the most important interaction occurring on a day-to-day basis in public schools across the state is between teachers and their students.
In spite of overwhelming evidence and bipartisan agreement on the important role teachers play in shaping children’s lives, recent policy initiatives have only served to heap scorn on teachers while concurrently cutting positions, freezing salaries, and removing classroom support. Last year’s budget led to about 3,000 layoffs for teachers and teaching assistants. More layoffs and cutbacks are in the offing this year since the proposed House budget only partially compensates for the loss of federal funding used to support about 5,000 teaching positions, and the proposed Senate budget does not even attempt to make up for this loss.
Teachers have lost vital job support including teacher mentoring, coaching, and professional development. Funds for classroom supplies and textbooks have been cut, increasing the financial pressures that teachers face as they attempt to provide students with the supplies they need.
The Senate passed legislation (S.B. 795 – The Excellent Public Schools Act) this session that would label students, schools, and teachers as failing on the basis of a standardized test score. The bill, which was not taken up by the House and has been inserted wholesale into the Senate budget, would also do away with career teacher status and place teachers on short-term contracts. Students will be retained and teachers will be fired, but neither will be given adequate support to improve.
One of the recurring concerns about education in this country is that other countries are beginning to catch up and even surpass the U.S. on some important international education benchmarks. The main difference between the U.S. and other countries that have made greater recent strides in education is that teaching is viewed as a profession on par with high status professions like law and medicine in these countries, and the in U.S. it is not.
In countries that are experiencing the most educational success, such as Finland and Singapore, teacher salaries are about the same or better than the salaries of those in other professions that require similar levels of education and experience. In the U.S., according to the National Center on Education and the Economy, teachers earn about 20% less than those in other professions requiring similar education and experience. Teachers teach for a host of reasons that go well beyond money, but the net effect of refusing to compensate educators is that the highest quality candidates become more difficult to attract and keep in the profession.
The situation is even worse in North Carolina, where teachers earn less than the national average and those that have been fortunate enough to retain their jobs have had their salaries frozen for almost four years. North Carolina consistently ranks in the bottom 10 states in terms of per pupil spending, leaving underpaid teachers to scramble for even the most basic classroom supplies.
Teaching is often a thankless task involving inadequate pay, money for supplies coming from teacher’s pockets, long hours, and students who are increasingly challenging to educate. There are few, if any, jobs more important than educating the future leaders of our state. In spite of the inadequate level of support teachers and students have received over the last 20 years, graduation rates and test scores for every subgroup have improved. The rhetoric and policies employed by legislative leaders should recognize this fact and make supporting teachers and improving the teaching profession the highest priorities in education. Educators should be publicly lauded for keeping our state’s education system afloat with one hand tied behind their back rather than blamed for its shortcomings. Instead, the legislature’s response has been to try to tie the other hand.
Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.