Last updated: March 12. 2014 12:11PM - 1535 Views
Steve Ford NC Council of Churches

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Why we should hope the Governor’s is serious about altering some controversial new education laws

He hasn’t put it quite this way, but what Gov. Pat McCrory seems to be saying – and who among us hasn’t offered the same excuse? – is that it sounded like a good idea at the time.

Sure it did, for those who want to see our underpaid public school teachers forced to scrabble like lab animals for a few extra dollars, while the lucky winners have to surrender their modest degree of job security.

Now, though, McCrory appears to be having second thoughts. Pushback not only from teachers and other public school advocates, but also from the board that runs North Carolina’s largest school system, might be a factor. Maybe plain old political calculations are in play. Whichever, if the governor can convince his allies in the General Assembly to rethink their approach to teacher pay, the schools and the families that count on them will be better off.

The Republican-controlled legislature, as part of this year’s state budget, moved to abolish by 2018 the “career status” granted to teachers who successfully complete their first four years. Although commonly referred to as tenure, career status mainly has guaranteed that a teacher can’t be fired without being given a hearing. It’s a basic form of protection from the arbitrariness that can result when an otherwise effective teacher finds herself or himself in the principal’s doghouse.

The new approach is supposed to have administrators designate the top-performing 25 percent of a school system’s faculty. Those teachers would be offered four-year contracts and $500 raises each year if they forfeited their tenure rights. Eventually, teachers not so favored would be hired year-to-year with no assurance their jobs would continue.

McCrory had this to say, as reported by The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill: “I think it’s an example of passing the policy without clearly understanding the execution.” Ringing in his ears might have been the complaints of many teachers who say that competing for raises will undermine the sense of teamwork crucial to their effectiveness. They also decry the abolition of tenure – a perk long seen as mitigating the pain of low salaries – as a slap at their professionalism that adds insult to injury.

Boards don’t buy it

“The intent of the rule is very good,” the governor added. The Wake County Board of Education, responsible for more students than any other school board in the state, might give him an argument on that point. But motives aside, the rule stands to be more hurtful than helpful, the Wake board obviously believes. On March 4, board members approved a resolution calling for the rule’s repeal, citing its harm to teachers’ morale and spirit of collaboration as well as its failure to address the broader problem of inadequate teacher pay.

School boards in Guilford and Durham counties earlier had gone even further in standing with their teachers against the new scheme. Guilford plans to challenge the plan in court, and Durham is ready to join the effort. The Wake board sees legal action as a last resort but possibly a needed one. Overall, a dozen or so boards across the state have taken similar steps.

Legislative leaders, with McCrory’s approval, put tenure on the chopping block because they think it shields incompetent teachers from accountability. Tenure defenders say that isn’t so, and that effective principals can weed out teachers whose performance falls short.

In any case, teacher performance is hard to quantify in ways that are easily tied to compensation. There are good reasons why so-called merit pay for teachers, as desirable as it may sound, has not become the prevailing model. If evaluations hinge on student outcomes, then teachers can end up being held responsible for things such as a poor home environment over which they have no control.

McCrory and top legislators are moving to shore up pay for teachers at the outset of their careers, an overdue step in the right direction. North Carolina has a long way to go, however, to reach the respectable middle of the national pack in teacher compensation – considering that it now ranks an abysmal 46th. Senior teachers are still waiting to hear when, or if, they might get a pay boost. The upshot is that the state can ill afford to make the teaching profession even less attractive, which is exactly what the new, competition-oriented pay plan will do.

Working together

Teachers are supposed to collaborate. They’re supposed to share insights as to how best to convey their subjects and how best to deal with the many other challenges of running a classroom. When new teachers flounder, it’s often because that spirit of teamwork is lacking.

Any approach that pits teacher against teacher in a contest for more pay and security turns the notion of teamwork on its head.

The evidence suggests that years of meager, stagnant pay already have taken a toll on North Carolina’s ability to recruit and retain an adequate teacher corps. Getting rid of tenure while chasing the mirage of merit pay is bound to make matters worse. Those are the realities driving school boards such Wake’s, Durham’s and Guilford’s now to say that enough is enough.

Whether the state is able to field an ample number of good teachers – not only in the schools serving its prosperous suburbs but also in its urban neighborhoods and remote rural counties – will go far toward determining how well its public schools can do the job they’re supposed to do.

That job, in a nutshell, is to open doors to opportunity for every child, no matter his or her circumstances. It’s only by opening those doors that we enable the members of each new generation to take proper advantage of their natural gifts and to become productive members of society.

Well-paid teachers who are treated as professionals and who are expected to collaborate with their colleagues may not be sufficient to guarantee high-quality schools, but they’re absolutely necessary. That’s why those of us who see ready access to good schools as a social justice issue put such an emphasis on doing right by the people who lead our classrooms. If McCrory in his second year in office is starting to see more clearly what’s at stake, perhaps he’ll be able to push his legislative allies closer to the intersection of good politics and good policy.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches. This essay appeared originally appeared on the Council’s website, www.ncchurches.org.

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