Monday, April 15, 2024

North Carolina Is Considering Changing How It Pays Teachers. It’s A Bad Plan.

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Not the place to look for a plan to revitalize teaching.


Over the last decade, North Carolina’s leaders have given teachers many reasons to consider leaving the state or the profession. They are considering adding another reason to that list.

Funding of public schools has been mediocre at best, and the legislature has dragged its feet on implementing a court-ordered funding equity plan. At the same time, they have provided great opportunities for charter school profiteers. The GOP legislature has used school funding for Democrat-voting districts as a political football. In recent culture battles, the state has seen everything from County Commissioners holding school funding hostage to Lt. Governor Mark Robinson leading a hunt (complete with tip line) to catch teachers misbehaving.

On top of these (and other) measures that might make educators feel a bit beleaguered, North Carolina has had trouble offering competitive salaries to its teachers (the state sets the pay scale for all NC teachers). For years, a career teacher in North Carolina would actually take an annual pay cut in real dollars. At one point the legislature offered teachers a raise—if they would give up the due process protections commonly known as tenure. The current pay scale offers little relief; a teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts at $35,000/year, and that goes up $1,000/year until they’ve been in the classroom for sixteen. Then their pay does not move for a decade, at which point they get a $2,000 raise—the last raise they’ll ever see. A North Carolina teacher faces the certainty that if they make a lifelong career out of teaching, they will see their pay in real dollars steadily decline.

All of this, plus the rising tide of “vitriol” and vilification of teachers has led to difficulty filling teaching positions in the state.

A new proposal has been wending its way through agencies for the last three years and has made its way to the State Board of Education. Originating with the North Carolina Education Human Capital Roundtable and passing through the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, the proposal intends to “lead to more licensed teachers increasing mastery in skills, knowledge, and instructional capabilities” as well as “enticing people who wish to leave an existing career” and come to North Carolina to teach.

The major change offered by the plan is to replace “promotion anchored by time” with “promotion anchored by outcomes.” Essentially, the group would like replace pay based on years of service with merit pay.

The plan calls for seven levels of teachers with four levels of licensure, from apprentice teachers (starting at $30,000/year) up to advanced teachers ($72,000). To move up the ranks, teachers must demonstrate effectiveness. This is where the problems with the program are most evident.

Teacher effectiveness is to be demonstrated, in part, through a value-added measurement. In North Carolina, that is EVAAS. EVAAS is a product of SAS and two men with North Carolina roots. Systems like EVAAS have been deployed across the country to crunch data from student scores on the annual Big Standardized Test of reading and math. The computation is complicated, but the principal is this: using statistical models, predict what score the student would have gotten on the test in an alternate neutral. Whatever the student scores above or below that is the attributed to the teacher as the value she added (or didn’t) to the student.

There are numerous problems with the value-added system, on top of the overall failure of using standardized test data to improve teacher or student performance. In fact, an EVAAS-based system for teachers was attempted over a decade ago in Houston, TX. Research by experts in the field found that the system was a failure, and that EVAAS produced data that was no better than random numbers assigned to teachers. Houston teachers took the system and EVAAS to court, where experts laid out twelve damning findings about the value-added model and the US Magistrate agreed with the teachers, saying “high stakes employment decisions based on secret algorithms (are) incompatible with…due process.” The suit had been filed in 2014; the court ruled against EVAAS in 2017.

Since the Big Standardized Test does not cover all subject areas, North Carolina’s proposal fills in the gaps with a mixture of administration and peer observations with student surveys. The pitfalls of making a teacher’s professional and financial advancement dependent upon student opinion seems clear enough.

Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support at the state’s Department of Public Instruction, lauds the plan because he believes it will spur teacher growth, saying that teacher effectiveness plateaus around years five to seven, but current research. Current research suggests that this old piece of conventional wisdom is simply not true.

Patrick Miller, chair of the state’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, has said, “The overarching goal is to create an outcomes-based licensure system.” This has been a dream for over two decades, since No Child Left Behind moved standardized testing to the center of school measurement, and it remains unrealized, because objectively measuring teacher quality remains somewhere between difficult and impossible. Value-added measures have not proven themselves to be the solution.

The backers of the plan have also expressed a belief that this will open up teaching to many more people coming from non-traditional avenues, but it is hard to see what about this system, in which advancement is based on factors over which the teacher has little control. Brenda Berg, CEO of the pro-business education reform group Best NC, said that it’s time to be “bold,” suggesting that pushback on the plan is because teachers are afraid of change. It’s hard to imagine how attached teachers could be to a system in which they are subject to a pay scale that barely keeps them above water; in fact, the exodus of North Carolina teachers suggests they aren’t attached at all.

But as teacher Justin Parmenter points out, North Carolina’s leaders need to be bold in confronting the true cause of their troubles.

It isn’t because the licensure process is too cumbersome. It isn’t because veteran teachers are ineffective and making too much money. It isn’t because our teachers lack accountability.

The reason North Carolina’s schools are suffering from a lack of qualified educators is because for the last 12 years our legislature’s policies have made it deeply unappealing to be a teacher in this state.

The plan is still in its draft stage, so perhaps some better choices than a merit system of advancement based on a discredited measure of teacher effectiveness can still be added. There’s still time to look for answers in a better place, like increased pay and respect for the state’s teachers.

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