CMS in fierce contest for teachers

In a booming region, the competition to hire and hold onto top teachers is fierce.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which will top 10,000 instructors this year, is experimenting with ways to entice promising new recruits, reward strong performers and make sure children of poverty get their share of the best instructors. The district is vying with smaller ones nearby, such as Lincoln, Cabarrus and Iredell counties, where state surveys show teachers are happier with their jobs.

Almost 150 energetic rookies are setting up classrooms across Mecklenburg, brought in by the national Teach for America program. Bolstered by a $4 million grant from the local C.D. Spangler Foundation, Teach for America is expanding its total corps in CMS to 215, including those who are back for a second year.

These recruits lack classroom experience and traditional teacher training. They sign on for only two years. But in the three years they've been coming to Charlotte, they've built a reputation for dedication and creativity in helping impoverished students learn.

Meanwhile some CMS veterans who have proven their classroom skill are collecting big bonuses for transferring into struggling schools. “With more challenges come larger success and bigger rewards,” says Helen Reed, a fifth-grade teacher who made strong gains with suburban kids and is joining a turnaround team at inner-city Reid Park Elementary.

The district is inching its way toward a performance-pay system that rewards teachers for how well their kids do, not just how long they've worked and what degrees they've earned. The presidential campaign may bring added attention: When California pastor Rick Warren interviewed candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on national TV earlier this week, he asked what they thought about merit pay for teachers. Both endorsed the concept, though Obama noted the difficulty of measuring instructional quality.

It's tricky terrain: Officials in other cities have learned that merit pay, done wrong, can undermine morale and teamwork. Among the tough questions: With educators and the public growing skeptical of North Carolina's testing system, how much should those scores drive teacher pay?

CMS leaders continue to work on ways to entice strong teachers to high-poverty schools. Twice in the past two years, Superintendent Peter Gorman talked about forced reassignments; both times the school board shot him down. He says he's happy with his latest recruitment effort, but it involved only seven schools, and many of the top-performing teachers transferred in from other high-poverty schools.

Teachers often prefer jobs in more affluent suburban schools, which tend to offer strong parent involvement, more desirable neighborhoods and higher-performing classrooms for their own kids. Bill Anderson, a retired CMS administrator who works with private dropout-prevention efforts, recently spoke about seeing long lines for those schools at district job fairs, while booths for inner-city schools drew few applicants.

“For younger teachers, vibrant teachers, they're just not a draw,” he lamented.

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