NC Department of Public Instruction pours more salt on teachers’ wounds

NC Department of Public Instruction pours more salt on teachers’ wounds

NCDPI has unveiled a controversial proposal to initiate merit pay for teachers. Image: Adobe Stock

Life as a public school teacher in North Carolina has never been a walk in the park or a path to easy prosperity. Though the job has always been enormously challenging and of supreme importance, the pay and working conditions have – in part because teaching was for so long generally viewed by our sexist society as “women’s work” – always been below par. Indeed, for those teachers not lucky enough to have decently compensated spouses or partners, second jobs have long been common and many other indices of middle class life (like owning a home) elusive.

And of course, in recent decades, this sad state of affairs has grown appreciably worse. In North Carolina, the gap between what teachers in public schools earn and other college grads in the private sector is one of the largest in the nation. Meanwhile, especially during the last dozen years of conservative Republican domination at the General Assembly, per pupil funding and instructional positions have been slashed and facilities neglected – even as both the state’s population and demands from cranky, micromanaging parents have escalated.

Now add in the stresses of the pandemic and the new wave of attrition it has brought to the profession (and schools of education), and it’s not surprising that the state’s surviving teaching corps is a shrinking and dispirited bunch.

At such a moment, you’d think that the top priority for North Carolina education officials – charged as they are by the state constitution with providing every child with access to a “sound basic education” – would be to do everything possible to rebuild morale of survivors, while encouraging new and promising would-be entrants into the profession.

Unfortunately, while such objectives attract occasional lip service, as a practical matter, teacher morale and well-being remain extremely low priorities – both for the General Assembly and the leadership of the Department of Public Instruction.

For the latest exhibit in this maddening state of affairs, check out the new teacher pay proposal advanced by DPI and state schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt. As Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress explained in an April 7 story – “State Board of Education reviews controversial draft overhaul of teacher compensation,” the draft proposal would introduce forms of “merit pay” to teacher compensation.

Under the plan, classroom experience – a teacher’s current chief pathway to a higher salary – would be devalued in favor of a combination of several other potential criteria, including student test scores, and evaluations prepared by principals, fellow educators, and students.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Interestingly, in her introduction of the plan at a recent State Board of Education meeting, Truitt went to great lengths to acknowledge that teachers need better pay and to defend the plan as something kinda’ sorta’ different than merit pay.

“I want to be very clear that this is not a model that ties teacher compensation to test scores,” Truitt said.

But as veteran Mecklenburg County middle school teacher and education policy observer Justin Parmenter explained on his website, Notes from the Chalkboard and in a recent interview with Policy Watch, that is precisely what one of the evaluation schemes in the plan does by tying teacher pay to DPI’s existing “Education Value-Added Assessment System” (EVAAS) – a program that relies in large part on the performance of students on standardized tests.

And while EVAAS would not be the only means for teachers to be evaluated (they could also opt for something called the “Practical Educator Evidence Review”) that system too comes fraught with problems – perhaps most notably its reliance on the results from student surveys.

Justin Parmenter

As Wake County high school teacher Kim Mackey observed on her website, educatEDPolicy, “a teacher could receive all ‘accomplished’ and ‘distinguished’ ratings from their trained supervisors, but if the teacher falls in the 30th percentile on student responses they receive frozen pay…followed by losing their teaching license if they still miss the 25% worthiness bar set by the state and evaluated by students.”

Each of these schemes, Parmenter, Mackey and many others note, would establish a system in which teachers are effectively encouraged to compete with their peers in “silos,” rather than collaborate as teammates – a practice that has long been the widely recognized model for successful public schools.

Now add to all this the fact that the communication between DPI and teachers in developing the proposal has clearly been inadequate-to-nonexistent (somewhat amusingly, Truitt attacked unnamed teachers for failing to properly understand the plan right before she described it inaccurately) and the situation is rendered that much more flawed.

The bottom line: While the idea of factoring the reviews of trained supervisors into teacher pay decisions could make some sense under certain circumstances, tying those decisions to student test scores and survey results, raises a host of enormously serious problems.

If their objective is to do anything other than pour more salt onto the wounds of the state’s beleaguered teaching corps, the authors of the proposal should do everyone a favor and head back to the drawing board.