It Pays to Age

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduces us to the “10,000-Hour Rule” – a principle, originated by Anders Ericsson, which says mastery of a field requires focused effort for an extended period of time – for 10,000 hours. For example, under this theory, spending 40 hours teaching every week for five years is how to produce a ‘master teacher.’

Now, compare Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory to how we pay a public school teacher. Under our current system, we say that a teacher has his or her lowest value at hiring. That’s when they’re paid the least. But that value does not increase one penny for the first five years of the teacher’s career. Not a penny.

The basic problem here – the flaw in the system – is we blindly lump teachers into categories called ‘tiers’ and pay them based on which ‘tier’ they fall into – instead of how well they teach. The tiers looks like this: 

Teacher Compensation Tiers



0 Years


10 Years


20 Years


30 Years


*         All levels assume a teacher with no advanced degree or certifications. Compensation includes state base salary, adds local supplement (using statewide average) and adds the present value of pension and healthcare benefits received after retirement. Compensation is flat for the first five years. Compensation increases annually thereafter.


The flaw in the system is obvious: An absolute genius teacher, who’s taught five years, is paid 40% ($25,000) less than a mediocre teacher who’s taught thirty years.

Now, I guess it is possible that the teaching profession is completely different from every other field of human endeavor – and that a teacher may not improve a bit in skill for five years. And, I guess, it’s also possible that every single one of the best teachers in North Carolina has taught over thirty years. But, after eight months in the General Assembly, when I look at a chart like this, right off, I smell politics – and suspect I’m looking at a pay system that is the result of politicians run amok and teacher union lobbying.

The NCAE likes to say if we want better teachers we have to pay them more. And that sounds fine. But it’s not the same as saying we should pay the best teachers more. And, in fact, our current ‘tier’ system dictates some of the best teachers will be paid less.

Here’s the bottom line: It is time we took a hard look at how our state compensates teachers. After all, shouldn’t the best teachers also be the best paid teachers?

3 Responses

  1. Thea Sinclair says:

    I began my teaching career with a master’s degree in my content area. This advanced degree enabled me to teach advanced classes in my subject area and have the knowledge base to explain more than what was required to those high school students who were curious and wanted “the rest of the story.” Was I at my peak in 5 years? Possibly in the teaching of biology, my first teaching assignment. However, during my 34 years of teaching, I taught 9 different subjects, including two advanced placement courses. Every summer I took additional courses in science and in pedagogy. As technology changed, I changed the way I taught as I gained new tools to use. My classroom and the students I taught in 2009 when I retired were far different from the homogenous classes I taught when I began in 1975 with a chalkboard. So should teachers with more experience and more skills earn more than beginning teachers? Overall, I would say yes. Should teachers at 4 or 5 years be given more pay? Again, I would agree, especially since this is when teachers are most tempted to leave the public sector and go to the private sector and work in jobs that pay far more. Why would a person who has a master’s in biology today even consider working for $38,000 as a high school teacher when she could start out in industry or research at $55,000? Our state is discouraging the brightest graduates from even considering teaching as a career. I already see the quality of education, especially science and math education, suffering due to a dearth of qualified individuals entering the teaching profession. The intangible rewards of educating a child are wonderful, but they do not pay the rent or groceries.

  2. M says:

    Teachers’ pay should be awarded on merit only. Schools will improve only when the best teachers receive the highest pay and when poor teachers are removed from schools, regardless of their experience.

  3. D says:

    It makes sense to get rid of teachers who do not do a good job and to pay more to above average teachers who work harder at teaching. I never saw very many teachers who I thought should be fired, but I did see several and schools would be a better place without teachers like them. The hard part is the criteria for deciding who is a really good teacher. With so many variables concerning students and learning, state tests are not very reliable criteria. Observation is probably the best way but can be so subjective that it wouldn’t hold up. After working a short while in a school I could tell you the really good teachers as I’m sure every principal could. Local politics are involved in selection of principals which can skew selection of great teachers. It’s not an easy thing with which to deal! Good luck to you in figuring it all out and just know that no matter what you decide, it will rile someone! D.

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