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A draft plan to shift the way NC teachers are paid sparks hope and worry

A math class at East Mecklenburg High School.
Ann Doss Helms
A math class at East Mecklenburg High School.

A proposal to change the way North Carolina’s teachers are paid and licensed went to the state Board of Education Wednesday. It's still years from becoming reality, but it has sparked a mix of excitement and anxiety as the draft went public.

North Carolina currently has almost 95,000 teachers whose pay is based on experience and credentials. An advisory commission has spent months looking at better ways to prepare, recruit and support teachers.

The report that went to the state board calls for a seven-tiered licensing system, with higher pay at each level. (Read the full report here.)

"Movement through these tiers is driven by competency and skill and effectiveness, rather than time," said Tom Tomberlin, head of educator recruitment for the Department of Public Instruction.

NC Department of Public Instruction

He and Andrew Sioberg, head of educator preparation, told the board that the new approach could help the state recruit teachers and diversify their ranks.

The first three levels would cover people who are preparing for the job. Someone with only an associate’s degree, who would currently be classified as an assistant, would be an apprentice teacher making $30,000 a year. Someone with a bachelor’s degree who is making progress toward demonstrating the necessary skills could make $40,000.

With a bachelor’s degree and a passing score on the state’s licensing exam, a teacher would make $45,000 a year. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said most graduates of education schools would qualify.

"And this is where they would start, which means their starting salary, if we have our way, will be higher than it is right now," she said.

Currently, a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes just over $35,000 a year on the state scale. Most districts add local money to boost teacher pay. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, teachers start at almost $42,000 a year.

The report didn't address the role of local supplements in a new system.

Higher pay for proven skills

The new plan would let teachers move into more advanced levels of licensure and pay. To do that, Tomberlin said, they’d have to prove their skills, either through student progress on state exams or alternative measures, such as principal observation and student surveys.

"We want to move from just 'I have the skills' to 'I’m employing the skills and bringing them to bear on the lives of my students,' " Tomberlin said.

Pay for the new advanced categories would start at $56,000 a year. At the highest level, which involves coaching other educators, pay would start at $73,000 a year. The current pay scale tops out at just over $64,000 a year, for a teacher with a master’s degree and National Board Certification.

All of the advanced licenses would be renewed every five years, with a $5,000 raise if successful. Teachers who fall short would get no raise and could try again.

Sioberg said a second failure would bring a penalty.

"If the teacher does not meet two consecutive renewal attempts, that would result in an expiration of the licensure. So there’s a very clear off ramp if you’re not effective in the classroom by these different measures," he told the board.

Sioberg didn't elaborate on whether that "off ramp" means losing a job. He couldn't be reached for follow-up.

Questions about test scores

Since the draft plan went public last week, teachers have been critiquing it. One of the big concerns relates to tying pay to test scores and the EVAAS system that's used to calculate how much schools and teachers contribute to student progress.

"It would increase 'teaching to the test' by offering a handful of larger salaries to those educators whose students do well on tests," CMS teacher Justin Parmenter wrote in his Notes from the Chalkboard blog

Tomberlin and Truitt noted that the system provides alternatives to using EVAAS ratings — though Tomberlin said an error in an earlier draft of the report led teachers to believe use of the ratings was required.

Board member Jill Camnitz said she's received emails from teachers across the state voicing "a fear that this is merit pay."

Tomberlin said the state does have a history going back decades of attempting to add elements of "merit pay" to the existing system. The 1980s saw some pay hikes tied to merit, and "when money got tight, of course, that quickly went away."

He said this is the first plan that shifts the whole focus of licensure and compensation.

"Our goal is to change the organization," Tomberlin said. "How can we make the actual structure of our schools more conducive to both student and teacher learning and growth?" 

Tomberlin said the advisory commission will keep working on the plan: "This is not in any way a final model."

Truitt said any real changes are still two to three years away.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.