As decision-makers across North Carolina debate ways to reward top teachers, the Belk Foundation is giving Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools $505,000 to expand a program that lets teachers earn up to $23,000 a year more for taking on added responsibilities.
The “ opportunity culture” program, which debuted at four CMS schools this year, aims to keep star teachers not only in the district but in the classroom. In exchange for hefty raises – impossible to get in the regular salary scale – teachers with a record of success support other teachers and a larger number of students.
Kristin Cubbage, a first-grade teacher at Ashley Park PreK-8 School, got one of the high-paying jobs this year. She now works with four teachers and more than 160 kids in kindergarten through second grade, helping the teachers with everything from managing behavior to helping kids learn to recognize words.
“I have loved this job,” said Cubbage, a fifth-year teacher. “It really is kind of a dream job in education.”
The Belk grant will expand the program into 17 more schools next year, spanning all grades and locations from the suburbs to the center city. By the time the money runs out in three years, CMS hopes to have almost half the district’s 160 schools participating.
Skeptics will note that CMS has a history of rolling out reward programs that vanish when money runs out. That’s where the opportunity culture plan differs. The startup money from the Belk Foundation and Project LIFT pays for consultants to help the schools create jobs that make a difference for students.
The schools themselves must make tradeoffs to pay for the higher salaries. For instance, principals might eliminate or redefine support jobs in order to boost pay for teachers who lead a team or specialize in classroom technology.
Another key: There’s no cookie-cutter plan for the new jobs. Administrators and teachers at each school must define their own needs and strategies.
That’s where the consultants come in. Project LIFT, a five-year, $55 million effort to dramatically boost achievement at West Charlotte High and its feeder schools, worked with Public Impact, a Chapel Hill education consulting firm, to create the first 19 opportunity culture jobs at four LIFT schools. Salary supplements range from $4,700 a year for elementary teachers hired to teach specialized subjects, such as math and science, to $16,100 to $23,000 for “multiclassroom leaders” like Cubbage.
Ultimately, educators and donors expect students who work with these teachers to show big academic gains. Research shows the best hope for disadvantaged students to succeed in school is to have several years of uninterrupted work with effective teachers.
They’re also looking for retention of teachers who take the new jobs.
“The message that I want teachers to hear today is that Charlotte, N.C., is a great place for teachers, and it’s a place where they are valued and respected,” said Katie Morris, chairwoman of the Belk Foundation board.
One semester in, it’s too early to say whether those goals will be met.
But there’s one “early win” Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark likes to point out: When the Project LIFT schools posted the 19 new jobs, they got more than 700 applications.
Another early sign of success, she says, is rave reviews from participating teachers.
The Belk grant will bring together Public Impact and Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that has been working with CMS to improve its teacher pay system in ways that encourage effectiveness. The consultants started working with teams from the 17 new schools this week.
Among them is Albemarle Road Elementary, where CMS announced the grant Thursday. Principal Tyler Ream said redefining jobs and salaries is tricky business. “We needed thought partners that have done this” and can advise the faculty on where other schools have succeeded or stumbled, he said.
Morris notes that teachers usually have to move into administration to get significant pay boosts. Many great teachers, she said, “still want to be in the classroom, but they want some opportunity for advancement.”
Denise Watts, the CMS administrator in charge of the Project LIFT schools, said the new jobs translated to raises of 5 percent to 35 percent this year. In contrast, most CMS teachers have gotten one 3 percent raise in the last five years. And a controversial new state plan awards $500 a year to top teachers who are willing to surrender their tenure in exchange for four-year contracts.
Creating new, better-paid teaching jobs is part of the CMS push to “redesign” all schools, with other efforts ranging from new magnets to merging elementary and middle schools.
“It’s just the kind of thing we want to be investing in: Innovation, the reimagination of the schoolhouse,” Morris said.
North Carolina lawmakers, educators and advocacy groups continue to seek ways to improve the teacher pay scale. The state currently ranks 46th in the nation for average teacher pay, a rating that has slumped in the recession years as the state froze pay. Both the state and CMS are studying ways to reform the current system, which rewards only longevity and credentials.
Superintendent Heath Morrison says he expects all CMS schools to eventually create higher-paying jobs for the best classroom teachers. But he emphasized that such work must be coupled with a push for higher base pay for all teachers, which he hopes will start with the 2014 legislative session.
“We can’t be $10,000 below the national average and think the opportunity culture is going to solve that,” Morrison said.