Testing sparks debate at forum on teacher pay, evaluation

Saying the amount of testing in North Carolina “borders on the absolute ridiculous,” Gov. Pat McCrory called Monday for a scale-back as part of a push to recruit and keep teachers.

“We are in danger of turning teachers into proctors,” McCrory told about 1,300 policymakers, educators and advocates at the 2014 Emerging Issues Forum sponsored by N.C. State University.

The forums, created by then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1986, target one issue each year that’s expected to shape the state’s growth and prosperity. This year’s two-day session is “Teachers and the Great Economic Debate.” McCrory spoke to the group hours after he announced a plan to raise starting salaries for teachers.

Speakers at the Raleigh Convention Center said teachers need raises, but pay isn’t the only factor.

“Money matters a heck of a lot, but it matters in a slightly more nuanced way than we think,” said lunch speaker Daniel Pink, author of “Drive” and other books about the science of motivation. He said giving rewards based on student test scores, which North Carolina and many other states are exploring, “flies in the face of all the evidence” and works from the false assumption that teachers aren’t motivated enough.

“Teachers are some of the most insanely motivated people in the entire workforce,” he said.

The crowd included Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison, new Gaston County Superintendent Jeffrey Booker, former CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman, several Charlotte philanthropists and education advocates and about 100 North Carolina teachers whose registration fees were paid by the Charlotte-based Belk Foundation.

The use of test scores to evaluate and pay teachers sparked some of liveliest discussion.

Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economics professor, presented data showing that high “value-added” ratings generated from student scores not only predict a teacher’s ability to boost scores in other schools but correspond to better chances of college success and higher lifetime earnings for students with top teachers.

Chetty cited a recent Harvard study that ranked Charlotte 50th and Raleigh 43rd on upward mobility among 50 large cities. While other factors such as segregation, income inequality and family structure are also important factors in boosting or limiting chances of advancement, Chetty said improving teacher quality is one of the best ways to brighten economic prospects. He said research indicates that removing a teacher in the bottom 5 percent on value-added ratings and replacing that person with an average-rated teacher boosts each student’s lifetime earnings by $50,000.

Helen Ladd, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, said she agrees with Chetty on the importance of effective teachers but disagrees on using student scores to identify them. Adult success is shaped more by characteristics such as perseverance and self-control than by academic skills that can be measured by tests, she said. Overemphasizing test scores may drive off the teachers who can help students most, she said.

Pink said the kind of rewards offered in performance pay are effective only in motivating simple, short-term actions. He said overall low pay is a problem because it makes teachers feel shortchanged, and “if you violate the norm of fairness, you are toast.”

He called McCrory’s plan for raises an important first step, but suggested a long-range strategy: “Raise base pay significantly and make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers.”

“It’s something the left will hate and the right will hate,” Pink said, “which to me means there’s a chance it might actually work.”

The Emerging Issues Forum is designed to bring together speakers from a range of perspectives. Tuesday’s session includes panels of North Carolina teachers and legislators, education writer and activist Diane Ravitch and Ron Clark, a high-profile educator based in Atlanta.