Experts: Challenges ahead to improve rewards, pay for N.C. teachers

North Carolina has much work to do on improving teacher pay and creating a system that rewards and keeps talent, speakers at an Emerging Issues Forum on teachers said Tuesday.

National experts, state lawmakers and former teachers offered divergent views of problems and solutions, at a forum that drew about 1,300 to talk about an issue that shapes the state’s economy. The annual forum, convened by N.C. State University and chaired by former Gov. Jim Hunt, concluded Tuesday.

Diane Ravitch, an author and historian who has become a leading critic of testing-based, corporate-driven education reform, got two standing ovations for her critique of recent state actions such as increasing charter schools, authorizing vouchers for private school, ending teacher tenure, increasing class sizes and eliminating supplements for master’s degrees.

“North Carolina stands today as a negative lesson for the nation about how to destroy public education and how to dismantle the teaching profession,” she said. “One of the nation’s shining lights is going out because of unwise decisions of the state’s leaders.”

The crowd clapped and cheered for 50 seconds, a stronger reaction than Gov. Pat McCrory got Monday, when he told the group about a plan to increase teachers’ starting pay.

That plan got mixed reviews from five legislators who were part of a panel discussion. Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said the proposal raises questions about fairness to veteran teachers and sustainability of funding. He called it a “trust me, we’ll get to the rest” approach.

State Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Archdale, said there are more announcements coming soon, including more money for “master teachers” and a plan to encourage local districts to create better career options for teachers.

“It’s only step one,” Tillman said of Monday’s announcement. “Believe you me, there will be other incentives in there.”

A panel of former teachers talked about what drives people out of the profession. Anita Brown-Graham, director of N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, noted that North Carolina had a 14.3 percent teacher turnover rate last year. (In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools it was 16 percent, a 10-year high.)

Some, including Deana and Mark Kahlenberg, who are expecting their first child in May, said they couldn’t afford to keep living on teacher pay.

“We’re both teachers and we want to start a family,” Deana Kahlenberg said.

Sharon Boxley, a North Carolina native who taught in Greene County Schools, said she left recently to teach in Maryland because she could make $15,000 to $20,000 more.

While all said that money matters, some said they were driven out by micromanagement, lack of respect and too much focus on testing.

Vivian Connell, a former Providence High teacher who is now a lawyer working for a public-schools advocacy group, called for an end to blame-throwing models of school reform. Instead, she evoked an academic competition that rewards students for teamwork and creativity.

“We need to stop playing tug-of-war. We need to play Odyssey of the Mind,” Connell said. “When you play tug-of-war, the other side just gets dragged through the muck.”

Rick Hess, education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute, said the current pay system for teachers, which offers small, fixed raises every year and the promise of a good pension, isn’t attractive to young people who expect frequent career changes. He urged schools to focus on restructuring jobs so the best teachers spend more time on what they do well, with fewer distractions such as cafeteria and bus lot duty.

“We’re trying to reform the teaching profession through policy, and policy is an extremely crude cudgel,” Hess said.

The “opportunity culture” jobs created by CMS’ Project LIFT schools were highlighted as an example of a way to provide big raises and new opportunities for teachers. Those jobs offer raises of up to $23,000 a year for top-rated teachers who take on extra duties such as coaching colleagues and using technology to reach more students.

Bryan Hassell of Public Insight, a consulting firm that’s working with CMS to expand the program, said the new jobs can happen without legislative changes. Principals and teachers at each school design the new jobs and fund the pay increases by eliminating or restructuring other jobs.