Marion Johnson, Policy Analyst, Think NC First

While state legislators debated teacher pay, Think NC First researched state and local teacher pay programs across the country. Our analysis turned up some common themes across the programs:

1. Flexibility

Denver’s public schools started a teacher bonus system that rewarded different aspects of teaching. Teachers could earn bonuses for getting licensed, teaching in a low-income school, or getting a strong evaluation. They also had the opportunity to individually set ‘Student Growth Objectives’ for their classrooms, with principal approval. After five years, the teachers who set those Student Growth Objectives were among the most effective in the Denver public school system.[i] 

Teachers know how much their students have grown in a year, and what kind of teaching they will respond to. Standardized test scores cannot fully capture that, and teachers shouldn’t lose out on recognition solely because their students didn’t get a certain score. Lawmakers should be willing to give school districts flexibility in their curriculum and classroom design, and likewise, school districts should give teachers flexibility to decide how to teach their students.

The Denver model shows that approach can be effective.

2. Teacher buy-in

Teachers need to believe in their system. Any sort of pay plan must be transparent and fair, so teachers will understand and trust it.

In 2013, a team of researchers studied three different performance pay systems in Austin, New York City, and Nashville, and all three reported the same problem – lack of teacher support. Teachers didn’t think their programs adequately assessed teacher performance, and they doubted that their teaching efforts would translate to the expected student attainment goals.[ii] It’s no surprise, then, that while these teachers were interested in earning a bonus, few of them changed their teaching practices to do so.

3. Fair Pay

Let’s be clear - despite the latest pay raise, North Carolina still doesn’t pay its teachers enough. Average teacher pay in the Tar Heel State is $10,000 below the national average.[iii] Even under the new salary schedule that lawmakers voted in this year, it takes 10 years for a teacher to start earning $40,000. A single parent with two children would barely be able to support his family with that salary.[iv]

Any teacher compensation plan must start with raising the base level of pay for all teachers. Then let’s add some type of merit or performance bonuses on top of that.

No teacher says they started teaching to get rich, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to let our teachers struggle to make ends meet. Lawmakers and citizens need to make fair pay for teachers a priority again.

[i] Goldhaber, Dan and Walch, Joe. (2013). Strategic Pay Reform: A Student Outcomes-Based Evaluation of Denver’s ProComp Teacher Pay Initiative. Center for Education Data & Research. Available at
[ii] Kun Yuan, Vi-Nhuan Le, Daniel F. McCaffrey, Julie A. Marsh, Laura S. Hamilton, Brian M. Stecher, and Matthew G. Springer. (2013). Incentive Pay Programs Do Not Affect Teacher Motivation or Reported Practices: Results From Three Randomized Studies. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 1. Available at
[iii] National Education Association. (2014). Rankings of the States 2013 and Estimates of School Statistics 2014.
[iv] Sirota, Alexandra; Mitchell, Tazra; and Johnson, Cedric. (2014). Living Income Standards 2014. Available at