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NC Board of Education sends mixed message as it slow-walks teacher pay revamp

Katerina Holmes

This content originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly email newsletter. To get news and analysis directly in your inbox, sign up here.

To hear state Board of Education Chair Eric Davis and Superintendent Catherine Truitt tell it, revising the way North Carolina licenses, supports and rewards its teachers is fundamental to helping students learn more.

They say the current pay scale, where raises come only with experience and credentials, is archaic and ineffective. And that makes it tough to recruit and keep the educators children so desperately need.

Last week’s board meeting included a vote on a “blueprint for action” designed to make it easier for teachers to get into the profession, keep developing skills that make a difference for kids and get significantly higher pay for results. After months of public engagement and controversy, it looked like this “Pathways to Excellence” plan might be close to materializing.

Leah Carper, the state Teacher of the Year who serves as an adviser to the board, said she sees a lot of “wonderful” things in the plan, but noted the confusion and lack of trust that prevails among teachers. And it doesn’t help, she said, that most of what planners have shared is “not readable for most teachers; it’s really difficult to comprehend.”

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The Guilford County English teacher noted that teachers worry about unanswered questions and the possibility that legislators will “take pieces of it” without delivering on big raises.

Davis, a Charlotte resident who used to chair the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, acknowledged that “in terms of the funding there is no guarantee.” The board’s strategy, he said, is to “do a proof of concept demonstration that it works by piloting this in districts across our state.”

“That will create a much stronger argument to win the day,” he said.

In other words, as WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer reported, the board’s blueprint for action consists of creating a special subcommittee to do more work, asking for more information about specific policies that would need to be revised, then seeking districts to volunteer to test elements of the plan.

If anything goes to the General Assembly in the 2023 long session, it will be a request for pilot authority and funding. So far there’s no price tag attached to a pilot program, let alone statewide teacher pay and licensure reform.

So here’s the dilemma: It seems reasonable to move cautiously on something that affects the livelihood of roughly 95,000 public school teachers and will require massive investment from taxpayers.

But if this is as important as advocates say it is, is it reasonable to wait years to get serious about statewide change? Let’s say the General Assembly approves some type of pilot early next year, and pilot districts are able to roll it out in August (that’s an optimistic timeline). If you measure results based on teacher recruitment and turnover it would take two or three years to see results, and almost certainly those results will vary by district.

If you’re waiting to see substantial, measurable changes in student performance, that could edge close to a decade. And the chance that any gains could be unequivocally tied to the teacher licensure pilot are slim, given the myriad factors that shape student performance inside and outside schools.

And this, of course, is the essential quandary for all education reform: The need for improvement is urgent and clear. The process of measuring results is slow and mind-bogglingly complicated.

Moving toward an alternative to school performance letter grades

Also on last week’s state board agenda: Officials who have been working on a better way to hold schools accountable and keep the public informed said they’re inching toward a more sophisticated alternative to A-F letter grades based primarily on student test scores.

Those of us who have to crunch messages into a headline or a broadcast like the idea of simplicity. But saying “an A school” or “an F school” doesn’t mean much. Student proficiency tends to reflect advantages or disadvantages outside of school, so the grades do more to sort the haves from the have-nots than to inform people about school quality.

Here again, things are moving slowly. State officials say there’s widespread demand for change, but the goal is a pilot for 2023-24. That means we’re not likely to see the General Assembly start fresh on school ratings any time soon.

Is ‘ThreeSchool’ the next wave for public pre-K?

EducationNC had an interesting piece about ThreeSchool, a new public prekindergarten program for 3-year-olds in Wake County. Wake Smart Start hit its goal of getting 85% of income-eligible 4-year-olds enrolled in free public pre-K and decided to expand to younger children.

Mecklenburg County has invested heavily in public pre-K for 4-year-olds, with separate programs run by the state, the county and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. County Manager Dena Diorio says 3-year-olds aren’t on the county’s radar now: “We are still working on universal pre-k for 4-year olds.” CMS officials also say they’re focused on recruiting for their 4-year-old program.

It’s still an idea to keep an eye on. Charlotte’s trying to close disparities in academic success and upward mobility, and many experts say the earlier children start getting enrichment the better.

Recognize creative educators

The Arts and Science Council is taking applications for awards honoring teachers who have “distinguished themselves in teaching art, science or history, or who have demonstrated creative infusion of arts, science or history into the core academic curriculum.”

A grant from The Cato Corporation is providing prizes of $1,500 for excellence awards and $5,000 for lifetime achievement awards. Anyone teaching in pre-K through 12th grade in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln or Union counties in North Carolina, or Lancaster or York counties in South Carolina, is eligible. Nominations are open through Jan. 18; details at ArtsandScience.org.

Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.