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Education

CMS Policy On Contracts Raises Questions Of Racial Equity And Teacher Quality

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Former CMS Board Chair Arthur Griffin (right) Zooms in to a board meeting to comment on proposed changes to teacher contract policy.

A proposed change to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ policy on teacher contracts is raising questions about teacher quality and racial equity. Hundreds of teachers — a disproportionate number of them Black — could be denied four-year contracts next year.

The proposed policy revision first came up in February. It didn't attract much attention, with the spotlight focused on how and when to bring students back for in-person classes.

But it centers on one of the most important and difficult challenges for American school districts: How to identify strong teachers, get them into classrooms where the students need them most and keep them there.

Few people in Charlotte understand that struggle better than Arthur Griffin. He grew up in segregated Charlotte schools and served on the school board from 1985 to 2003. Five of those 18 years he was chairman.

Griffin has watched decades of efforts to ensure that Black students have top-quality teachers, including after he left the board.

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Darnell L. Vennie
Arthur Griffin

In 2018, for instance, Griffin recalls that former Superintendent Clayton Wilcox came to the Black Political Caucus to present Breaking the Link, a report that scrutinized why Black, Hispanic and low-income students in CMS persistently face obstacles to academic success. One of the big points was, in Griffin’s words, "that Black children — well, they used the term ‘high-poverty schools’ — did not have access to highly effective teachers."

This year, as Griffin watched the board discuss teacher contract requirements, he worried that not only were officials unwilling to set high standards for teachers but that Black teachers may not be getting a fair shake in job evaluations.

"This is what systemic racism looks like," Griffin said recently. "You identify what the problem is, but yet you fail to come up with a satisfactory remedy because you got all these excuses as to why you can’t come up with a remedy for a system that’s unequal."

Who Gets Four-Year Contracts?

The current debate goes back to 2013, when North Carolina lawmakers eliminated career status for teachers — what people often call tenure.

Five years later, lawmakers allowed districts to offer four-year contracts. CMS decided that for the first three years, teachers would serve one-year contracts — sort of a probationary period. After that, they could get a four-year contract if they received ratings of “proficient” on all state evaluation standards. That’s right in the middle of the five-point rating scale.

After that, about seven years into their time with CMS, they’d need to get higher “accomplished” ratings on three of the five categories they’re judged on in order to get another four-year contract. Otherwise, they’d bounce back to a one-year contract.

The first batch of teachers — about 2,200 of them — will hit that point next year.

CMS human resources chief Christine Pejot says her department concluded the higher requirements could cause CMS to lose good teachers.

"We have a nationwide teacher shortage, and we are doing everything we can to attract and retain good teachers," she said. "And ‘proficient’ is a good teacher."

Now CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston wants the board to lower the requirement, to make teachers eligible with ratings of at least “proficient” across the board.

Voting Without Data

The school board’s policy committee took up the proposal in February.

Human resources staffer Robert Ellyson told the panel the change would provide consistency "and provide some job security for our teachers."

Board member Carol Sawyer argued for the change.

"These are good teachers," she said of educators rated proficient. "They are not necessarily the rock star teachers who are going to be Teachers of the Year, but we don’t have enough of those, either."

Board member Sean Strain argued that a four-year contract should be a reward for above-average performance.

"Because ultimately this is about kids," he said. "And if the performance warrants a four-year contract, by all means, we should award a four-year contract. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure why we would."

Committee members asked twice for data on how many teachers would qualify for four-year contracts under the current standard. But Ellyson said job evaluations were still underway and no numbers were available.

The committee voted 3-1 to approve Winston’s proposal anyway.

A Confidential Report

But Griffin, who had watched the meeting remotely, says he and some board members kept challenging the change after the committee vote, "and that’s when lawyers got involved and wrote that little secret memo."

"That little secret memo” is a three-page report on the contract requirements that was prepared about two weeks after the committee meeting and presented to board members in private small-group sessions. The CMS board routinely holds such sessions, which are not subject to North Carolina's Open Meetings Law, to prepare for public board meetings.

The report says that under the current policy — the one that requires at least three “accomplished” ratings — 761 of the 2,201 teachers up for renewal would not qualify for another four-year contract. With the proposed change, requiring only “proficient” ratings, virtually all of them would.

And the report breaks those numbers down by race: Out of 1,484 white teachers up for renewal, 71% would qualify for another four years under the higher standard. But only 52% of nearly 574 Black teachers would qualify, with 275 Black teachers eligible only for a one-year renewal.

And this is in a district where 63% of teachers are white, but only 26% of students are. Pejot says that’s one reason racial breakdowns matter, "because so many of our initiatives are around attracting and retaining diverse (teacher) populations as well."

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Christine Pejot

The report says that the current CMS standards could put the district at a competitive disadvantage. Cabarrus and Wake counties require only “proficient” ratings, it says, while Gaston, Guilford and Iredell-Statesville schools require some “accomplished” ratings but also offer other avenues, such as national board certification, to qualify for a four-year contract.

Being denied a four-year contract doesn’t mean teachers have to leave CMS. But staff and board members worry it could send a signal that it’s time to look elsewhere.

Are Evaluations Fair And Consistent?

The state dictates how teachers will be evaluated, but it’s up to each principal to do the ratings. Pejot says she has doubts that those ratings are consistent from school to school and that teacher ratings always reflect what’s happening with students.

"We were able to identify at least one school that had high student growth yet none of the teachers at that school would have met the current standards to be able to get a four-year contract," she said.

The report was not presented at the board’s March 9 meeting, which included a public hearing on the policy change. Instead, Griffin heard some of the numbers from the only other person who signed up to speak: Justin Parmenter, a CMS teacher and North Carolina Association of Educators board member. Parmenter urged the school board to approve the change.

"Approving this amended policy would increase the number of African American teachers who are eligible for four-year contract renewals by 92% and Hispanic teachers by 88%," he said. "So in its current form, this policy has a disproportionately negative impact on teachers of color."

Griffin urged the board not to approve the change, saying that lowering the standards would undermine the district’s promise to get highly qualified teachers in front of Black and low-income students.

When the hearing was over, he asked about the numbers Parmenter cited. He says a board member told him it was from a confidential report. When WFAE asked for the report, CMS initially said it was not available for the general public but released it the next day with a school name redacted.

Griffin said the report, which he eventually received, didn’t change his mind about lowering the standards. He notes that the state defines “proficient” ratings as demonstrating basic competence, while “accomplished” means exceeding basic competence. In the state’s eyes, a highly effective teacher means having “accomplished” ratings in all five categories.

But it did raise new questions for him.

"If disproportionate numbers of African American teachers are not 'accomplished' in seven or eight years, you have a disparate impact on African American teachers that would require you to find out if there’s any racial bias going on," Griffin said.

That bias, he said, could be in how teachers are evaluated or in how their principals help them develop their skills. And he said if board members really believe experienced teachers with “proficient” ratings are good enough, he has a proposal.

"Just assign all the highly effective teachers to the high-poverty schools and leave your ‘proficient’ people over to the low-poverty schools, since they claim they’re all effective," Griffin said, chuckling.

Going Back To Dig Deeper

School board member Lenora Shipp, a retired principal who chairs the policy committee, says Griffin is right. If a disproportionate number of Black teachers are not meeting the higher standards, "we need to be asking the questions why."

"So do we lower the bar?" Shipp said. "Dude, that doesn’t sound right. ‘Cause we’re saying that we have lower expectations of this group. And that’s not right."

The policy change was on the agenda for a full board vote on March 23, but Shipp moved to send the matter back to committee. She says now that her panel acted hastily in endorsing the policy change without seeing the data.

On April 20, they’ll return to the question in a public meeting.

Pejot says the HR department is already working on helping principals do more effective, consistent job evaluations, and on helping experienced teachers keep improving.

But in a district with 176 schools and more than 9,000 teachers, she says, that kind of work takes years.

"That’s not something that’s going to be fixed in time for 2022, to save otherwise good teachers from getting a one-year contract instead of a four-year contract," Pejot said.