Publisher's note: The author of this post is Dr. Terry Stoops, who is the Director of Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.
Fact checking WRAL's teacher pay documentary
Just kidding about the "fact check" part.
Fact checking is the art of using logical fallacies to identify logical fallacies. I'd rather just record my observations for your amusement or ridicule.
Last night, WRAL aired "Grading Teacher Pay," a short documentary
examining various aspects of the teacher pay debate in North Carolina. It was written and produced by Clay Johnson, a documentary filmmaker and former deputy press secretary for Governor Jim Hunt. WRAL education reporter Kelly Hinchcliffe is the narrator.
It featured the kind of balance you would expect from WRAL. On one side, they interviewed former governor Jim Hunt, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, Associate Professor Eric Houck of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, Athens Drive High School teacher Shavonne Hairston, and former teacher Jennifer Lowery. All five agreed that the state does not do enough to support public school teachers.
For an alternative viewpoint, they interviewed Nelson Dollar.
As a six-term Republican member of the N.C. House and top budget writer, Dollar was a very good choice to explain the political dynamics of teacher pay raises and describe the progress made by Republicans to raise starting pay. A handful of clips of Republican Governor Pat McCrory commenting on teacher pay were included but never added anything substantive to the film.
After a short introduction, the documentary tells with the story of Shavonne Hairston, a high school social studies teacher at Athens Drive High School in Wake County. It detailed the typical day for Ms. Hairston, a fifth-year teacher who describes herself as a "nurse, teacher, pseudo-parent." She believes that her nearly $43,000 a year salary does not match the value of her work or the 50+ hours that she works every week during the school year.
I have found that most people believe that their salaries do not match the value of their work. In some cases, it is true. In the case of, say, Justin Bieber, it is not. The problem is that attempts to differentiate the former from the latter are rebuffed by folks who say that measuring and/or evaluating the value of an educator's work is not possible or desirable. In other words, if we cannot or will not determine the value of someone's work, how do we reward it appropriately?
The second segment addressed the nitty-gritty policy issues through interviews with Hunt, Atkinson, Houck, Dollar, back to Houck, to a clip of Governor McCrory, then a return to Atkinson that gives way to more Hunt, another clip of McCrory, some screen-time for Dollar, and of course a parting word from Hunt. It was like a Jim Hunt Big Mac, hold the Berger.
Johnson and Hinchcliffe touched on a number of related issues, including the politics of pay increases, the cost of teacher turnover, the tenuous relationship between compensation and student performance, teacher pay rankings, and connections between education and economic development. Needless to say, they tried to cover too much ground.
On the other hand, there was no effort to explain the critical role of federal mandates or local government finance. By doing so, Johnson and Hinchcliffe occasionally exaggerated the role of state government and failed to acknowledge that there are aspects of this issue that are beyond the control of elected officials - yes, even Jim Hunt.
In fact, in the companion article online, which is more balanced than the documentary, N.C. Department of Public Instruction official Alexis Schauss pointed out that the variation in teacher pay appears to correspond to changes in the experience level of the teacher workforce. According to Johnson and Hinchcliffe, "When North Carolina's average teacher pay went down in previous years, it wasn't because teachers were paid less. The population just became less experienced."
Specifically, teachers are paid based on experience, among other factors, so a less experienced workforce will depress the overall average. Conversely, states with an aging teacher workforce will have a higher average. While lawmakers can and should take steps to retain more experienced teachers, they cannot force them to stay in the profession, nor can they compel school districts, particularly growing ones, to hire more experienced educators. These critical points never make it into the documentary itself, despite their ability to explain some of the drop in teacher pay rankings that spanned both Democratic and Republican majorities.
Part three is an interview with former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher Jennifer Lowery. Lowery resigned in December and is now writing curricula for an online education company. She likes working from home and says that she is less stressed and has a better quality of life after she left the classroom. She believes that a "significant" raise would be step in the right direction, but she doubts that legislators will approve such a raise.
The documentary ends abruptly. Johnson and Hinchcliffe would have been much better off cutting some of the Lowery interview to give the audience a concluding thought. Surely there was a clip of Jim Hunt that could have been used for this purpose. Otherwise, an abbreviated review of the legislative short session would have made sense here.