by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Every April, education policymakers and pundits anxiously await the release of “Rankings and Estimates.” Rankings and Estimates is an annual compendium of education
data published by the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher union. The report includes current-year estimates of average teacher salaries, per-student expenditures, and other data points of interest to the public.
Since its inception several decades ago, the report has had multiple shortcomings. NEA researchers do not adjust salary figures for the cost of living. Health insurance, pension, social security contribution, liability insurance, life insurance, and other benefits are not included. The report omits adjustments for factors that skew the average salary figure, particularly differences in credentials and years of experience across states. Finally and most importantly, NEA methodologies for collecting and calculating salary estimates are not transparent.
The NEA’s nebulous methodology took center stage shortly after the publication of its Rankings of the States 2021 and Estimates of School Statistics 2022. The NEA made a baffling decision to report (and later modify) an average teacher salary figure significantly lower than the $55,905 average reported by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in their annual Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget publication. DPI finance staff have used the same methodology to calculate North Carolina’s average teacher salary since 2002.
Initially, the NEA reported North Carolina’s average as $53,644, or 40th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia. After questions arose about the discrepancy, the NEA raised North Carolina’s average to $54,863 or 34th in the nation. If the NEA simply accepted the state agency figure, as they have done in the past, then North Carolina would rank 32ndin the nation and boast the 3rd highest average salary in the Southeast. As mentioned above, these figures do not include the $22,000+ in benefits received by each full-time district school teacher in the state.
I contend that the NEA’s inexplicable modifications to North Carolina’s average salary figure also constitute research misconduct.
While NEA researchers write that state-level data are “based on survey responses from state education agencies,” they appeared to subject North Carolina’s responses to extraordinary scrutiny. News & Observer education reporter Keung Hui discovered that “North Carolina was the only state whose average teacher salary was lowered because of a change in how it [average salary] is defined.” Not only did NEA researchers lower North Carolina’s average salary figure this year, but they “used the new methodology to retroactively lower the state’s average salary and its ranking for the past two years.” It is no surprise that the NEA does not want to discuss its data debacle with the media. On Twitter, Hui pointed out that the “NEA didn’t want a specific person quoted when I talked with them and NCAE [North Carolina Association of Educators] didn’t meet my multiple day deadline to respond.” Their failure to acknowledge their errors publicly is not surprising for a union that prefers to be a shill for the Democratic Party and apologist for the radical Left rather than an organization committed to representing the nation’s ideological diverse teacher workforce. I contend that its inexplicable modifications to North Carolina’s average salary figure also constitute research misconduct.
For the NEA, data have always been a means to an end. The purpose of publishing average salary and per-student expenditures is to generate sympathy for public schools and spur elected officials to pour money into them. “Teacher Crisis Hovering Over Schools in America” (Charlotte Observer, 1946) was the ominous headline of one of the first North Carolina newspaper articles highlighting NEA financial data. This year, an NEA press release declares that the data “paints a dire picture” of a “five-alarm crisis” necessitating “improving educator pay at all career stages and for the long term.”
North Carolina lawmakers should continue to improve educator pay. They also should no longer grant across-the-board pay increases and instead begin to implement a comprehensive teacher salary system that attracts and rewards excellence. In both cases, they would be wise to refuse to use teacher union data as a basis for doing so.