More NC teachers are getting bigger bonuses in 2018. So why does controversy remain?

Stephanie Stanic teaches fifth grade at Nations Ford Elementary School, which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools celebrated for gains on last year’s exams.
Stephanie Stanic teaches fifth grade at Nations Ford Elementary School, which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools celebrated for gains on last year’s exams.

North Carolina’s teacher merit bonuses are booming, with about 8,800 expecting raises in this week’s paycheck based on their students’ 2017 achievements.

That’s a huge increase over last year, when the bonuses debuted on a smaller scale. This year far more elementary and middle school teachers are eligible, collecting payments as high as $9,700.

The state expanded eligibility, made some payments bigger and eliminated one of the glitches that angered some teachers last year. Almost $41 million is budgeted for this year’s performance bonuses.

But that doesn’t mean all teachers are cheering. North Carolina has about 95,000 teachers, so most aren’t getting a bonus.

“These bonuses don’t target everyone who made a difference in these children’s success. ... It’s not the answer to student success or lifting the profession,” said North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell, who contends the money would be better spent boosting salaries.

The best way to reward teachers has long been a point of contention between the NCAE, which generally supports Democrats, and the Republican-controlled state legislature. Teacher pay was frozen during the recession, leading North Carolina to plunge in state rankings for teacher pay.

After the recovery began, the General Assembly approved several teacher raises, starting with the newest teachers and moving into the mid-level ranks of experience. Republicans have generally been enthusiastic about shifting the emphasis from experience and credentials to results.

“I can understand how there might be opposition to paying excellent teachers for great work in a socialist country like North Korea, but I don’t understand why unions like the NCAE would oppose paying excellent teachers big bonuses in America,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement Wednesday.

The ultimate question is whether the public investment in bonuses pays off for students. The General Assembly mandated a state report based on the first two years of data; that will be presented to the state Board of Education in March.

Reading and math bonuses

The biggest payments are going to elementary and middle school teachers whose students made big gains on reading and/or math exams.

The state has a contract with the Cary-based SAS Institute to calculate value-added ratings – that is, how much of students’ year-to-year progress on exams can be attributed to the teacher. That system is considered fairer than bonuses based on student proficiency, which is influenced by the advantages or disadvantages children bring from home.

Last January third-grade teachers got bonuses based on their students’ 2016 performance on reading tests. They qualified if their value-added score was in the top 25 percent statewide or in their school district. About 1,300 got state bonuses and about 1,200 got district bonuses, with about 1,000 qualifying for both.

That year teachers couldn’t collect if they were no longer teaching third grade in the same school. That dismayed high-performing teachers who had accepted an assignment to a different grade or school without knowing they were giving up their shot at a bonus. This year teachers remain eligible as long as they’re still teaching in the same school district.

This year thousands of additional teachers became eligible for bonuses if they landed in the top 25 percent for fourth- or fifth-grade reading growth or math growth in grades 4-8. The total bonus varies based on a number of things, including grade level and school district, but the Department of Public Instruction says 6,900 teachers in grades 3-8 qualified for state and/or district bonuses. The state bonus comes to about $3,300, while district bonuses range from $2,300 to $6,400.

Jewell said the revised program still falls short because many who help students master reading and math – K-2 teachers, counselors and assistants, for instance – are shut out. Principals and assistant principals are eligible for merit bonuses that range from $1,000 to $15,000, which are tied to changes in their pay scale.

High school rewards

High school teachers qualify for bonuses if their students earn credentials that show they’re ready for careers or college.

Those who teach career-technical courses are rewarded based on the number of students who earn industry certifications or credentials. Just over 1,900 teachers qualified for amounts ranging from $25 to $3,500, with the average at $991, the state reported. That’s about 440 more career-tech teachers earning bonuses than last year.

State officials say the goal is to have more students graduating with certifications that could lead to an immediate skilled job. Since the state started tracking in 2011, the number of credentials earned statewide has risen from 25,000 to more than 160,000.

Teachers will also receive bonuses of up to $3,500 based on the number of their students who earned high scores on Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education exams, all of which indicate students have mastered college-level work. The state does not yet have tallies of teachers earning those bonuses.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms