Home Opinion OPINION: Average teacher pay critics need remedial math instruction

OPINION: Average teacher pay critics need remedial math instruction

A recent headline in a major N.C. newspaper declared “Average N.C. teacher pay is nearly $58,000, state says. But educators argue many earn less.”

Any person who understands the concept of a mathematical average could have responded, “Yes, and many earn more.” Compare all teacher salaries — from lowest to highest — and one single figure represents the average. Any teacher who doesn’t earn the average earns either more or less.

The article’s opening paragraph explains that the average teacher pay figure appears in a new state report. “But state education leaders say that doesn’t tell the whole story,” reporter Keung Hui added.

Of course not. By design, an average cannot tell the “whole story.” It offers useful information, but it cannot describe the circumstances every teacher faces.

Official statistics from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction indicate that the average compensation for a public school teacher is $57,805. That’s $1,804, or 3%, more than the prior year.

Advocates of higher teacher pay complain that the figure paints too rosy a picture.

“This is not the story of North Carolina’s financial situation for teachers, and that average is infuriating to me,” said Leah Carper, a Guilford County teacher who advises the State Board of Education. Carper made that comment during a state board meeting, according to the N&O.

Carper went on to say “That’s not the number. That’s not the story.” She invited board members to call her so they could see her pay stub.

With starting pay set at a floor of $37,000 in school districts with no local salary supplement, it’s clear that North Carolina will have plenty of teachers who earn less than the average.

No one argues otherwise.

One should expect the average figure to document the salary of a mid-career teacher in a district that falls in the middle of the pack in providing extra local pay.

One also should expect that the number of teachers earning more than the average is comparable to the number earning less. If we’re talking about “median” teacher pay, just as many teachers earn more as those who earn less. By definition, median teacher compensation must be the figure sitting right at the midpoint among all teachers. Tens of thousands of teachers will earn less. The same number will earn more.

The “mean” teacher compensation figure is a bit different. Especially low or especially high figures could skew the average.

If Carper and fellow critics of the current average believe the number skews too high, they ought to be willing to publicize pay rates of North Carolina’s most highly compensated teachers. The only way it can be true that $58,000 misrepresents the average is if the highest-paid teachers get paid so much that they throw the calculation off balance. Their high pay must counteract the entry-level teachers at the bottom of the pay scale.

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I won’t hold my breath waiting for teacher pay critics to shine their spotlight on those collecting the largest paychecks. Publicity of that type would spoil the narrative of an underpaid profession.

Complaints about average teacher pay remind us that the number can be misused. For years, advocates for pay hikes have trumpeted reports suggesting North Carolina ranks among the states with the lowest average teacher pay. Critics often urge North Carolina to pursue the “national average.”

Each time that complaint arises, those with a better understanding of averages chime in with important caveats. National comparisons rarely factor in significant cost-of-living differences between states. National rankings fail to account for differences in experience levels of teachers from state to state. (For years, a growing state like North Carolina featured a higher-the-average share of younger, less experienced teachers at the lower end of the pay scale. That younger pool of teachers lowers the average.)

National comparisons often fail to account for wide variations in health and retirement benefits offered from state to state.

My former John Locke Foundation colleague Don Carrington raised an important point in 2014. Carrington reminded readers that pay for teachers and other public employees depends on a robust private sector generating tax revenue to foot the bill.

In 2012, not long after Republicans won control of the N.C. General Assembly, public school workers earned 85.1% of the average pay of their peers nationally. At the same time, North Carolina’s private-sector workers earned 87.5% of the average pay of private-sector peers nationwide, Carrington reported.

That meant advocates who wanted to see teachers paid at the “national average” would have been asking for them to fare roughly 14% better financially than the private-sector employees who collectively fund public-sector salaries.

One can use and misuse statistics in many ways. That’s especially true when the statistic is an average that can mask wide variations.

But at least we should expect people who cite an average figure to understand what “average” means.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.