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The North Carolina Teacher Project is a year-long look at the teaching profession, told through in-depth feature stories, comprehensive policy discussions on The State of Things, intimate conversations between students and teachers, and multimedia presentations. More background on this series is available here. Check out our The Teachers' Room Blog on Tumblr.These reports are part of American Graduate - Let’s Make it Happen! - a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Experienced Teachers Under Fire

Teachers and supporters carried heavy cardboard boxes of petition signatures calling lawmakers to raise the teacher pay to the national average.
Reema Khrais

College pennants hang from every open space in Chuck Hennessee’s classroom at Culbreth Middle School in Chapel Hill. He’s even strung some up on clotheslines from one side of the room to the other, so you have to duck to avoid them. But for Hennessee, it’s been a few years since his own graduation.

“I am a better teacher in my 29th year now than I was in my 25th and much better than I was in my 20th, my tenth, and it doesn’t even compare to my fifth and first year,” says Hennessee.

For many of those years as a teacher in Wake, Durham, and now Chapel Hill, Hennessee has supplemented his income by working as a bus driver, a furniture salesman, even as a bartender. Now, as he closes in on 30 years as a teacher, he has a base salary of $50,000, not counting the local supplement, the stipend he gets for coaching volleyball, and master’s pay.

This year, he got a 0.3 percent raise from the state, the lowest possible on the new teacher salary schedule.

“It is not even with the cost of living,” says Hennessee. “It’s not where my pay grade should be. And it’s a real insult to me as a professional.”

One of the reasons for the smaller raises for experienced teachers is longevity pay. It’s a bonus for most state employees that kicks in after ten years on the job, and goes up every five years.

When the General Assembly simplified the teacher salary schedule (pdf) from 37 pay steps to six, longevity pay was folded into it.

Republicans say the schedule, and the raises, were designed to benefit newer teachers because they were leaving the state at a high rate. The General Assembly raised salaries for teachers early in their careers as much as 18 percent.

“We’ve got to be committed to raising the level of our experienced teachers who have been here, have fought all the battles, have been through the two pay freezes,” said State Sen. Jerry Tillman during a teacher compensation task force meeting earlier this year. “I know about them, I set there through them myself. But if we only had a limited amount of money, we had to start somewhere.”

The emphasis on newer teachers is starting to show up in schools. In 2013, 27 percent of teachers had five years or less experience. On the other end of the scale, just 15 percent of teachers had more than 25 years on the job.

If that balance tips too much it can create a problem within a school.

“You have to have some people who have institutional knowledge,” says Michael Maher, the Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation in the School of Education at NC State. “You have to have people who have been through curricular changes to help these young folks weather those storms, and veterans have a sense of the community. And communities matter. The community of the school, leadership matters. I really can’t overstate how importance of the community in a school.”

National critics of teacher unions often cite experienced teachers as one of the problems with public education. They get tenure, they say, and ride out the last years of their careers.

“Across the country, you have 3.2 million teachers, which is the largest single occupation in the United States,” author Steven Brill told the Wall Street Journal. “And it’s the only workplace in the United States where how talented you are, how energetic you are, how you perform, has nothing at all to do with how you get paid and how you get promoted.”

Locally, some critics say the same, even though North Carolina has no collective bargaining, no teacher’s union or the same type of teacher tenure. Some research, like a recent study by Prof. Helen Ladd out of Duke (pdf), directly contradicts the narrative that experienced teachers get lazy. It says the more experience a teacher has, the better students perform. Other research indicates that teachers peak at about 5 years into their careers.

As others point out, almost all teacher effectiveness research has a basic flaw: it relies solely on student test scores. Only about 40 percent of teachers even teach students who take end-of-grade or end-of-class tests.

“I really wish we would change the narrative about teacher effectiveness because when people talk about that, by and large, they are talking about standardized test scores and that’s it,” says Maher. “As though that were the end-all, be-all of classrooms and schooling, when there’s so much more that happens in a classroom.”

If the research is conflicting, the economics are not: teachers later in their careers cost more.

“It’s simple: when you go to the doctor, do you want the one out of med school? Do you want the one who just decided to be a doctor in his 30s? Because something else didn’t work out?” says Hennessee. “Or do you want a person who’s been seasoned, who’s worked on their craft, and the mistakes the young new people are making, they’ve seen corrected and they’ve moved to a higher level?”

Hennessee says everything with a broad smile on his face, so his strong words can land a little softer. It’s undoubtedly a technique he’s learned in communicating with the thousands students he’s taught over the years. But when asked about his future, his smile evaporates.

“It’s a concerted effort to get the veterans out,” he says. “It’s a concerted effort to get the people who cost the most out.”

In the new salary schedule, base teacher salaries top out at $50,000 in a teacher’s 25th year. After that, teachers will never get a raise to their base salary, no matter how many years they continue to teach.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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