This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

With just a few weeks left before the start of a new school year, districts are scrambling to fill teaching vacancies.

North Carolina educators, and those in other states, are leaving the profession in large numbers on the heels of the traumatic COVID-19 pandemic that, at its worst, led to school closures, remote learning, and unprecedented stress and burnout for teachers.

Moving forward, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that there will be more than 124,000 openings for elementary school teachers and 77,400 high school teachers each year for at least the next decade. Some North Carolina districts have reported hundreds of teacher resignations.

Undoubtedly, the past two years have been among the toughest teachers have faced in decades. Pandemic-related stresses along with parent uprisings over school closures, mask mandates, and attacks on curricula by elected officials and others have left teachers feeling disrespected and unappreciated.

Now, North Carolina educators might have another reason to look for different work: a new licensing and compensation proposal backed by state education leaders would replace the state’s seniority-based teacher salary system with one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state tests.

The Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) presented a draft proposal of the new system—labeled “North Carolina Pathways to Excellence for Teaching Professionals”—to the State Board of Education in April. If the proposal is approved and implemented, standardized tests, principal and peer evaluations, and student surveys would be used to determine whether a teacher is effective.

Supporters say the new plan would help to attract more candidates to the teaching profession, increase teacher pay, and retain veteran teachers with the promise of advancement and higher pay.

“We’re trying to address the ongoing, pervasive challenge that many teachers feel that they do all of this extra work, which is tantamount to volunteer work that they’re not compensated for,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in April during a State Board of Education meeting.

Teachers, however, are vigorously pushing back against the proposal, which they contend is an unwanted move to a system of “merit pay” that places too much emphasis on student scores on standardized tests. They argue that a better strategy to recruit and retain teachers—a stated goal of the new proposal—is to pay them a fair wage. The average annual teacher salary in North Carolina is $54,150. The state is ranked 33rd nationally in average teacher pay and much lower when salaries are compared to what individuals with comparable education and experience can earn in each state’s private sector.

“North Carolina needs a teacher licensure program that respects teachers’ expertise, rewards their time in the profession, and offers support throughout the duration of their career,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators.

Meanwhile, academic studies examining merit pay show mixed results. A 2020 study (Teacher Merit Pay: A Meta-Analysis) conducted by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University, Kansas State University, and UNC-Chapel Hill was one such study. As the authors reported: “We found that when a merit pay program motivates

“We found that when a merit pay program motivates teachers, it also tends to produce positive effects on student test scores. However, differing effects imply that not all merit pay programs are motivating to teachers. The literature also suggests that merit pay can potentially increase teacher recruitment and retention but teachers are less likely to stay once the incentives run out.”

Educators express deep concerns

Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle school teacher and education policy commentator who writes at the website at Notes from the Chalkboard, has taken on a leading position in pushing back against the new licensing and compensation model.

“There are some serious flaws with this proposal and widespread teacher objections [to it],” Parmenter told Policy Watch. “It’s not just one loud-mouthed teacher in Charlotte who is complaining about it.”

Indeed, the new licensing and pay proposal has been topic Number One among educators on various social media platforms this summer. And more than 1,000 educators reportedly joined Walker Kelly in a recent tele-townhall meeting to voice concerns about the proposal.

The NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) also conducted several regional listening sessions to collect feedback from teachers and found widespread concern about what many teachers view as a backdoor attempt to move them to an unwanted system of merit pay, something that many educators nationwide have rejected.

“By and large, the feedback that they got was all negative,” said Parmenter, who has combed through numerous public documents to better inform teachers about the new licensing and compensation plan.

Teachers wonder in particular how such a plan can be administered fairly when data show students in wealthy, predominately white schools perform better on state exams, he said.

“One concern I keep hearing being raised by teachers is that if we know that our pay and career advancement is going to be determined by students being successful on a standardized test, then who’s going to want to teach in Title I [low-wealth] schools that routinely have abysmal test results?”

Parmenter noted, however, that it might be advantageous to teach in such a school if the pay proposal rewards educators for improving academic growth from one year to the next.

In addition to revising how teachers are paid, the new proposal would also create a system of entry-level certifications with the goal of bringing more people into the profession. One certification under the plan would serve essentially as a learner’s permit, that would allow aspiring educators with associate degrees to teach for two years while they earn a bachelor’s degree.

Some veteran educators see that move, however, as one that will negatively impact the quality of the instruction students will receive.

“This is a move toward the de-professionalization of teaching,” said Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators. “It’s being done in a very sneaky, underhanded way.”

The new model creates multiple steps at which educators can advance in the profession, including “expert” and “advanced” teaching roles that allow them to earn higher pay for taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching novice teachers.

Walker Kelly, though, said North Carolina already has policies and pathways to support teacher recruitment and retention.

“But they lack execution with fidelity and funding commitments from the North Carolina General Assembly,” she said. “For the sake of our children and the teaching profession, we need to fund what we know works adequately. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel on licensure and compensation with a pipeline plan designed to leak.””

Merit pay or not?

Truitt has pushed back against claims that the “North Carolina Pathways to Excellence for Teaching Professionals” is a merit pay plan. She doubled down on that stance last month during an interview on WFAE radio’s “Charlotte Talks.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now, some of it deliberate, some of it not, about this proposed pay plan which is still in the development phases,” Truitt said in the interview, which Parmenter shared on Notes from the Chalkboard. “And it is absolutely false to say that this is merit pay. Merit pay means that you are comparing a teacher against another teacher. That’s not what this pay plan proposes.”

Parmenter challenged Truitt’s remarks in a July 28 post.

“State Superintendent Catherine Truitt continued to insult the intelligence of North Carolina’s teachers this week, repeating her absurd claim that paying teachers based on their perceived merit is not merit pay,” Parmenter said.

The debate over labels and definitions seems likely to prove important in how the proposal is received by educators. A 2014 report by UNC-Wilmington researchers found that less than 10 percent of the state’s teachers agreed that “performance-based pay would incentivize teachers to work more effectively,” attract and retain teachers or improve student learning.

The study also found that 89 percent of teachers believe merit pay would disrupt collaboration in teaching. Only 1 percent of teachers agreed that pay for performance would have a positive impact on teacher morale, retention or quality.

Battles over messaging and access to records

Parmenter submitted dozens of public records requests to learn more about who’s behind the push for a new system of teacher compensation. Indeed, he submitted so many requests that the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has threatened to charge him thousands of dollars to process future requests.

“Our team has worked with others at the agency to ensure each request was completed and we have done so without charge,” DPI Communications Director Blair Rhoades informed Parmenter via email last month. “However, as stated on the NCDPI Records Request form, and pasted below, we reserve the right to charge.”

Notwithstanding the agency’s warning, Parmenter’s efforts have borne fruit. Among other things, his requests uncovered evidence of a concerted effort by Truitt, PEPSC leaders, and members of the Human Capital Roundtable, a group of state education leaders working to find solutions to the state’s teacher shortage issues, to thwart EducationNC, an online media outlet, from conducting its own teacher survey to find out how teachers feel about the Pathways proposal.

A similar strategy to control messaging about the proposal was employed when the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit education policy think tank, offered to hold focus groups to collect feedback on the proposal.

“There are some specific things teachers object to [in the proposal], but the problem is how much of these [public records] show a concerted effort to market this plan instead of working on trying to figure out what’s wrong with it,” Parmenter said. “I believe stakeholders can give them some ideas on how to fix it, but there’s this major effort like trying to lean on EdNC to not to do a survey, which is all about controlling the public narrative and making sure people only get positive messaging about this proposal.”

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