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Education
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

NC Education Official: Use Break From Testing To Evaluate Teacher Bonus Program

huntersville_elementary_reading.jpg
ANN DOSS HELMS
/
WFAE
Huntersville Elementary students take part in a reading lesson.

North Carolina paid out almost $35 million in teacher performance bonuses this year. On Thursday the state Board of Education looked at data to figure out whether the state is getting its money's worth.

The bonus program provides rewards based on student test scores. For example, some high school teachers can earn up to $3,500 based on how many of their students earned career-tech credentials or strong scores on college-level exams.

But the biggest spending is on rewards for elementary school reading scores and math scores in grades 4-8. The General Assembly requires the Department of Public Instruction to examine how those bonus payments affect teacher effectiveness and retention – the idea being that all that money should drive better teaching and/or help the state keep its best teachers.

The results are mixed and inconclusive, for the most part.

"We cannot causally attribute any of this to the bonus," DPI’s Tom Tomberlin told the board.

The reading and math bonuses are competitive: Teachers qualify for one payment if their students growth falls into the top 25% statewide and a second payment if they land in the top 25% for their school district.

That makes the program controversial: Many teachers say it’s arbitrary and pits teachers against each other, rather than rewarding everyone who excels.

But Tomberlin told the board that approach lets the state take note of districts that seem to be doing something right, including several in the Charlotte region. On average, you’d expect about 25% of each district’s teachers to land in the state’s top 25%. But the report highlighted a handful of districts that had significantly more.

"There seem to be some real pockets of brilliance across the state," Tomberlin said.

Among them is Cabarrus County, which was among the top five districts for fourth- and fifth-grade reading and sixth-grade math. In fact, the Charlotte region claimed four of the top five spots in sixth-grade math. Mooresville Graded Schools landed 73% of its sixth-grade math teachers in the state’s top 25%, followed by Gaston, Bumcombe, Union and Cabarrus schools.

Third-grade reading bonuses got an especially deep dive, because the state’s Read To Achieve program places emphasis on getting all students to read at grade level by third grade. So far there’s been little progress. The state set aside $10 million for third-grade reading bonuses. Teachers who landed in the top 25% for state and district growth got almost $7,000 each, compared with $4,000 for the other reading and math bonuses.

DPI’s Tara Galloway said the third-grade reading analysis showed that highly experienced teachers had the best results: "We can see that the majority of the teachers who were qualifying for the bonus were between the 25- to 30-year mark."  

With schools closed because of the coronavirus, the state has gotten a waiver from giving exams this year.  School board member J.B. Buxton said this would be a good opportunity to put the bonus plan on pause and give it deeper study.

He said he's not opposed to paying for exceptional work, but "I do want to make sure that $35 million, we feel like that’s the best investment of that money."

State legislators still have to decide how to handle the bonus program in the absence of test scores.

The state doesn't disclose which teachers earned bonuses but does break down payouts for districts and charter schools. Those reports can be downloaded from item E2 on this agenda.

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