BY DR. KAREY HARWOOD Next Monday, November 4, Public Schools First NC and the NC Justice Center, along with parents and educators, are speaking out on behalf of North Carolina’s public school teachers. These organizations will hold a press conference at noon on the south side of the Capitol grounds. All interested parties are invited to attend, and everyone is encouraged to “wear red to support public ed.”
Teachers are going to be teaching on November 4, going about the work of educating our children. Many will also be holding a “Walk In,” inviting elected officials and members of the community into their schools to see the work that they do. While teachers carry on with their day-to-day responsibilities that day and every day, it is important for the rest of us to become educated about what is happening to public education in North Carolina.
First, teachers are again being asked to do more with less. Specifically, the 2013-15 state budget reduced funding for teacher and teacher assistant positions while removing the cap on class size. This means fewer adults are available to teach larger numbers of children, even though our student population continues to grow. There was no pay raise for teachers, yet the budget for textbooks, technology, and classroom supplies was cut. This puts even more pressure on teachers and parents to try to make up the difference for what the state is not spending on its public school students. In fact, North Carolina ranks 48th out of 50 states in per pupil spending, which puts us more than $2600 below the national average.
Second, teachers are facing some significant changes to the terms of their employment. New legislation takes away the power of local school boards to grant “career status” to teachers and school administrators; new teachers or teachers currently in the pipeline to receive career status will no longer be able to receive it. The change effectively forces all teachers into temporary, year-to-year contracts without the opportunity for a hearing if demoted or dismissed.
Teachers who already have earned career status are being asked to give it up. They can either give it up now, in exchange for a 4-year contract and a $500 bonus for each year of the 4-year contract, or they can hold onto their career status until 2018, at which time they will join all other educators in being offered only 1-, 2-, or 4- year contracts. Only 25% of teachers – the “top” 25% — will be designated to receive 4-year contracts. How these 25% will be chosen fairly remains to be seen.
To add insult to injury, teachers will no longer get a salary increase for earning a master’s degree starting in 2014.
The cumulative effect of all of these changes is cause for serious concern, if not alarm. Our public schools are not getting the support that they need. Our teachers are not getting the support that they need. More than that, their profession is being de-professionalized and subjected to norms of the business world. While some might ask, “What’s wrong with treating schools more like a business and teachers more like at will employees?” it is important to explore those assumptions more deeply.
Offering bonuses to “top performers” no doubt makes sense in certain industries, especially where workers have a significant amount of control over their work product and are judged for their work with measures that are relevant and sufficiently sophisticated. However, these are not the working conditions of public school teachers. Public schools must embrace all students who come through their doors, which is as it should be. But that means public school teachers practice their profession in widely diverse settings with widely diverse children. As for judging their “work product,” the measurement of teacher “effectiveness” relies too heavily on end-of-grade standardized tests, which are at best a partial indicator of the overall impact a teacher has on her students.
A teacher who teaches English language learners or students with disabilities may not look like a top performer according to the narrow measure of end-of- grade test scores. Does that mean her students didn’t learn or grow? A teacher who teaches a classroom full of gifted students may see very little “growth” in terms of the narrow measure of end-of-grade test scores because her students’ test scores start out very high. Should that teacher be fired for inadequate performance? Teachers’ ability to meet their students where they are and encourage academic, social and emotional growth is a testament to their skills as professionals.
Rank ordering teachers to designate the “top 25%” to receive some limited measure of job security in the form of a 4-year contract is a type of merit pay scheme. Unfortunately, merit pay schemes are a blunt instrument for a complex art. They have also tended to create perverse incentives in places where they have been tried, like the desire to cheat to inflate test scores, to avoid asking for help, to withhold information that might benefit a colleague, or to fail to report a problem to the administration. They have the potential to be highly divisive to school communities and are ultimately inappropriate to the realm of education, where collaboration for the sake of students’ success, not competition between teachers, should be the overriding goal. As Diane Ravitch has said, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies.”
If North Carolina wants to retain its best teachers, it should compensate them – all of them — as professionals and offer job security to those who have earned career status. Teachers deserve more respect and support for the very important work that they do.
Please join us for the press conference on November 4 to learn more.
Dr. Karey Harwood is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at North Carolina State University, where she has taught since 2003. She earned a Ph.D. from Emory University in the Ethics & Society program of the Graduate Division of Religion. She has published primarily in the area of bioethics, but also writes about the moral arguments surrounding public education. For the 2013-14 academic year, Karey is on leave from NC State and serving as Executive Director of Public Schools First North Carolina, a statewide non-profit organization that advocates for public education. Karey is a long-time supporter of public education and has been a volunteer for Great Schools in Wake since 2009. She has lived in Raleigh for 11 years and has three children in the Wake County public schools.