NC Charter Teacher of the Year calls for major charter reform

In case you missed it, this week EducationNC published an opinion piece by Doug Price.  Price teaches at Voyager Academy in Durham and was recently named the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year.  He has worked extensively with Hope Street Group, Kenan Fellows, and the NC Public School Forum, and he is currently working on a PhD in Educational Leadership.

Charter school policy in North Carolina has been a hot topic since 2011, when the newly elected Republican supermajority moved quickly to eliminate the cap limiting the number that could operate in the state.  Since then, unfettered charter growth has led to a number of problems impacting both children who attend charter schools and those who don’t.

In the EdNC article, Doug calls for the following major changes to charter school policy in North Carolina:

  1. Reinstate the charter cap
  2. Stop associating charter schools with vouchers and online charter schools
  3. Challenge the claim that wide-open competition leads to better outcomes.  Data shows that’s not the case.
  4. Return to the intent of the original charter legislation–which called for innovative approaches to education–and create pathways for collaboration so those practices can help students in traditional public schools.

It’s refreshing to hear this perspective from someone who not only works in a charter school, but is as respected and knowledgeable about education policy as Doug Price.  Here’s hoping the legislators who are responsible for crafting those policies are listening.

NC Representative again introduces legislation to arm teachers

Cabarrus County Representative and proud NRA member Larry Pittman has once again introduced legislation to arm teachers.  Filed this week, the School Defense Act would authorize full and part-time school employees to carry firearms in our schools.

Pittman’s last effort to put guns in the hands of teachers came in the wake of last year’s Parkland massacre, where 17 lost their lives and an armed security officer declined to enter the school building and engage the shooter.  

At the time, Pittman urged fellow lawmakers to support his legislation, saying

We need to allow teachers, other school personnel and other citizens, who are willing, to be screened and to receive tactical training and bring their weapons to school, in cooperation with local law enforcement who would need to be informed as to who is doing this. We should give them a fighting chance. Otherwise, when they die, and children die whom they could have defended, their blood will be on our hands. I cannot accept that. I hope you will think this through and find that you cannot accept it, either.

A recent national survey of educators found that more than 95% did not believe that teachers should carry a gun in the classroom.


NC Superintendent falls for fake news on school grades

First it was Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, now it’s Superintendent Mark Johnson.

This week shoddy reporting that started with Raleigh CBS affiliate WNCN had folks all over the state convinced that state legislators were considering changing the grading scale used to measure student performance in school. According to multiple news outlets, the new scale would make 40% a passing grade for North Carolina public school students.

The bill under consideration in the General Assembly would actually do no such thing. It would merely extend the same 15 point scale used to calculate NC School Report Cards that has been in place for the past six years. The legislation has nothing whatsoever to do with student grades.

Last week Mark Johnson held a private event to launch his NC2030 plan, informing hundreds of legislators, educators, movers and shakers about his vision for the next decade in NC public education. Johnson’s plan calls for the 15 point scale to be continued, and it’s a move that would require legislative approval.

On Tuesday Johnson appeared on WLOS in Asheville to talk about his NC2030 plan which, let me remind you, calls for this exact change. But when the interviewer asked him about the school grades legislation, Johnson appeared to think the bill called for a change in the way we grade students:

Interviewer: The General Assembly talking about possibly making changes to the grading scale, lowering an A would now be an 85 rather than a 90. Talk about that. What are your thoughts on that?

Johnson: I need to talk to the members of the General Assembly who filed that bill. We were not involved in filing that bill. I’d like to know what their concerns are. I’d like to know where that came from. Obviously I have a concern, because a 90 to 100, that’s a big range for an A. And I don’t know that we necessarily want to make our grading scale less rigorous in order to get more students As.

There’s actually no need to talk to legislators to understand what’s going on here. All you need to do is move beyond the fake headlines and read the actual bill.

Johnson’s comments begin at about the 7:55 mark in the video. Hat tip to Raleigh teacher Kim Mackey for catching the SNAFU.

Misinformation about NC school grades dominates the airwaves–and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s Twitter account

Tuesday was a frustrating day for anyone with even a cursory understanding of education policy in North Carolina.  Despite his seat on the State Board of Education, that would apparently  not include our Lieutenant Governor, Dan Forest.

Here’s what happened.  On Monday evening Raleigh CBS affiliate WNCN published a story titled ‘NC General Assembly mulling over changing grading scales.’

To the uninformed, WNCN’s story made it sound like legislators were considering changing the way students are graded to make it far easier for students to pass:

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina General Assembly is considering changing the grading scale used in state public schools.

Right now, anything less than a 60-percent mark is a failing grade. The new scale would change that to anything less than 40 percent.

The new scale would be:

  • A: 100 to 85 percent
  • B: 84 to 70 percent
  • C: 69 to 55 percent
  • D: 54 to 40 percent
  • F: Anything below 40 percent

Tuesday morning, other media outlets around North Carolina followed WNCN’s (mis)lead:

The story then spread to other states, with media outlets continuing to repeat the misinformation.  Public reaction was pretty much what you would expect, including plenty of insults about the low bar set by public schools.

Here’s the thing.  The legislation these news outlets were ‘informing’ the public about is HB 145.  HB 145 has nothing at all to do with grades students receive in schools.  The bill doesn’t even change anything about education policy in North Carolina.  All it does is extend the same grading scale that has been used to measure performance of our public schools ever since the Republican supermajority-controlled General Assembly introduced School Report Cards in 2013.  It’s also a move that was called for last week by Republican state superintendent Mark Johnson in his NC2030 plan:

For the news media to get a detail on education policy wrong and start a little brush fire with the public is annoying, but not all that rare.  However, for an elected official that sits on the State Board of Education to pour gas on that fire by using his platform to claim that we are lowering standards is highly unusual, as it appears to show either incompetence or a desire to unfairly disparage North Carolina’s public schools.  We should expect far better from our leaders.

NC Superintendent opts for marketing over substantive change

After weeks of controversy and speculation, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson held his Innovation and Leadership event in Raleigh on Tuesday to make what he had hyped as ‘Major announcements for our education system.’

The keynote speaker of the night was Kelly King, CEO of BB&T and board member of Best NC.  King scared the crap out of the audience, painting a dark, positively Trumpian picture of the social landscape in North Carolina:

‘We are leaving a worse society for our students than we grew up enjoying.  We aren’t leaving them with any hope. And with no hope, they go out and get on drugs, they kill others, they get guns, and they get into other sorts of trouble.’

Our superintendent was more upbeat.  He praised teachers for their dedication, saying, “Teaching is a wonderful profession.  It is a fulfilling, fruitful profession.”  From another source, Johnson’s words might have felt inspirational.  But take a look at this actual video of Mark Johnson at the end of his ‘fulfilling, fruitful’ second year teaching science at West Charlotte High School in 2008:

via GIPHY

It would have been great had the evening included some actual major announcements for our education system.  To his credit Johnson did call for a 5% increase in pay for teachers, which was a refreshing change considering only a year ago he referred to $35,000 for a starting teacher as ‘good money.’  

But rather than debuting a game changer, Johnson’s ‘major announcement’ was about a marketing campaign called Teach NC which aims to “reclaim the image of what teaching is” and increase recruitment and retention of educators in our state.  

Details are scarce at this point.  There’s a Twitter account which was created and parked last month, and there’s a bare-bones web site with some vague talk of re-imagining teacher recruitment efforts to look “beyond ‘traditional’ teaching professionals to individuals without education degrees, teacher training, and experience.”  

What’s interesting is who was tapped to lead the charge on refurbishing the image of the North Carolina teacher.  Best NC is a pro-business education reform lobbying organization whose board of directors is made up of wealthy, influential executives from businesses like Bank of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Allen Tate Real Estate.  

Education advocates might tell you that, since its founding a few years back, Best NC’s most noteworthy contributions to the public education arena have been two things:  The first was actually the lack of a contribution–the organization stayed silent on the corporate and income tax cuts which have deprived public schools of billions in potential revenue. It was also silent on last fall’s constitutional amendment to cap income tax, again limiting future education revenue.  Imagine the impact had a coalition of the state’s most successful business people come out in favor of increasing public education funding rather than prioritizing financial profit for the private sector and already wealthy individuals. It didn’t happen.

The second thing Best NC is known for in public education circles is its enthusiastic lobbying for North Carolina’s principal pay plan.  At a Best NC legislative gathering held just prior to Mark Johnson’s event on Tuesday, Representative John Fraley referred to that pay plan as ‘a mess.’  He’s right.

North Carolina’s principal pay plan came at time when North Carolina had fallen to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, and change was desperately needed.  Unfortunately, the change that we got after all of Best NC’s behind-the-scenes work with lawmakers was a plan that pays principals based on their students’ standardized test scores despite findings by the Department of Education that such measures are not accurate predictors of future success.   The plan is so flawed that some North Carolina principals stood to see their salaries drop by as much as $20,000, and the General Assembly had to add a hold harmless clause to prevent a mass exodus of principals from the state.

It’s difficult to know how our ‘innovative’ approach to compensation has impacted principal recruitment because, surprisingly, the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t track principal turnover.  But I think it’s safe to say that folks aren’t streaming into the state for an opportunity to lead one of our schools.

Now Best NC will bring its transformative vision to teacher recruitment and retention.  I’m sure that with so many successful CEOs behind the curtain the marketing know-how at Best NC is top notch.  But as we move forward, let’s keep one important point in mind.

What North Carolina’s public schools need is not the appearance of being great places to work, they need to actually become great places to work.  They need to become places with roofs that don’t leak, where educators are respected and empowered, where students are safe and supported, and where we have all of the resources that we need to get the job done.  Those are the changes that will improve recruitment and retention of teachers in our state.

The transformation we need is going to require a whole lot more than a slick marketing campaign.  It’s going to require leadership that believes in putting the public good ahead of adding more money to the pockets of the already super rich.  Time will tell whether Best NC can get behind a vision like that.

Pope Foundation president ‘depressed’ that teachers might get paid for master’s degrees but totally chuffed about his own


Last week Senate Education chair Rick Horner filed a bill which would restore master’s pay for many teachers in North Carolina.  If passed, the legislation would essentially reverse a move made by state lawmakers in 2013, when compensation for graduate degrees was revoked.  Reaction from teachers and pro-public education organizations was largely positive.  But at least one prominent North Carolinian found the news depressing.

John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation, a conservative organization which gives grants to a variety of causes.  He is also chairman of the board of the influential John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank which publishes the Carolina Journal.  

A frequent echo chamberist for the Carolina Journal, Hood makes no secret about his view that paying teachers based on years of experience and degrees is a ‘bad idea’ and that we need to figure out a way to make performance pay happen.  So it should come as no surprise that Hood would cherry-pick data that supports his views on master’s pay, ignoring studies that show positive impact of graduate degrees on both testing data and teacher evaluation results.

What is a bit more surprising is that Hood is cheeky enough to dismiss the value of teachers earning master’s degrees just three months after announcing to the world how ‘enriching’ he found his own graduate experience:

Hood found his master’s degree so life changing that he published an opinion piece of truly astounding rhetorical complexity entitled ‘Take time to broaden the mind’ in which he beseeches the reader to seek out a path of enlightenment similar to his own.  Clearly Hood believes in the power of graduate degrees to bring about fundamental, positive change in people. As long as those people aren’t educators.

It’s a mystery whether the ‘enriching’ from Hood’s master’s degree included any additional Benjamins on top of the more than $230,000 salary reported on the Pope Foundation’s most recent 990 filing.  Unlike Hood, those teachers he claims don’t improve by going to graduate school actually need the money.  Our average teaching salary of $50,861 ranks 37th in the nation, nearly $10,000 behind the national average.  Since the GOP supermajority came to power in 2010, we’ve lost master’s pay, longevity pay, and retiree health benefits, and veteran teacher pay is now frozen from years 15 to 24 with only one final raise after that.  No teacher in North Carolina would ever dream of raking in a salary like Hood’s. But a 10% increase for a master’s degree doesn’t seem outrageous.

When it comes to the master’s pay issue, there’s limited value in playing the duelling research game.  As I said, there’s ample evidence to support both points of view. So, like Hood, I rely largely on my own anecdotal experience to shape my opinion.  The graduate degree I earned improved my classroom management skills, helped me design more engaging lessons, deepened my content knowledge, and made me a more reflective practitioner.  It made me a far better teacher in many ways.

Earning a master’s degree takes tremendous commitment.  By compensating teachers who are willing to put that kind of time, money and effort into ‘broadening the mind,’ our legislators can show they value teachers who practice what they preach when it comes to lifelong learning.  Let’s do the right thing by North Carolina’s teachers and restore master’s pay in 2019.

After ice cream, could state lawmakers address our practice of assigning Fs to schools of poverty?

North Carolina’s long nightmare of frozen ambiguity could finally be over. Yesterday Representative John Torbett filed a bill entitled ‘Official State Frozen Treat.’ If passed, this legislation would end years of confusion which had residents wasting valuable time eating popsicles, slurpees, and even frozen yogurt. Finally, ice cream will be adopted as North Carolina’s official frozen treat.

After amending the General Statutes to elevate ice cream to its proper status, I’d like to offer a humble request as a public school teacher. Could we please address our practice of assigning school report card grades which more accurately measure levels of poverty than student learning?

North Carolina currently assigns schools performance grades based on a formula of 80% achievement and 20% growth. This approach assumes largely that the playing field is level and all students starting from the same point. But the results clearly show that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other.  As poverty goes up, school grades go down:

In fact, failing school grades are so closely linked to poverty that Virginia abolished A-F school grades in 2015, resolving that such measures did not effectively communicate to the public the ‘status and achievements’ of schools.

So for God’s sake, once we’ve done the people’s work on this ice cream problem, could we take a look at how we measure success in our public schools?

Why performance pay is the wrong path forward for North Carolina’s schools


note:  this piece was republished by The Washington Post

“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”
                –Award-winning Harvard economist Roland Fryer

A few years ago, Roland Fryer set out to learn whether the New York City Department of Education’s distribution of $75 million to teachers who met performance targets in 200 high-need schools actually led to better outcomes for students.  His research determined that it didn’t.  Not only that, the department’s practice of dangling money in front of teachers may have even decreased achievement, by encouraging teaching to the test and damaging the collaboration so necessary for healthy school culture.

Here in North Carolina, performance pay has been creeping into education reforms as well.  

Our principal pay system was recently overhauled after North Carolina’s ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation, with lawmakers vowing to “give more pay to principals who could move their schools to a higher performing level.”  The new system pays school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year.  It was enthusiastically supported by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, whose board includes influential millionaire GOP donor Art Pope.

The principal pay plan was so deeply flawed from its inception that it requires annual renewal of a hold harmless clause to prevent reductions in salary of up to $20,000 for some principals.  Research clearly shows that having an effective principal in place is especially crucial in schools that serve our most disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, performance pay discourages principals from working in struggling schools where high staff turnover and other factors make consistent growth difficult to achieve.

Another move toward pay for performance was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and included in our 2016 budget.  Berger’s teacher bonus program initially offered sizable bonuses–potentially more than $9000–to third grade reading teachers who were in the top 25% for reading growth on standardized test scores.  Despite the financial incentive, those scores continue to drop, as they have ever since Berger’s Read to Achieve program was rolled out in 2013.  

That trend didn’t stop legislators from expanding the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses.  This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.

Paying educators based on their results probably sounds very reasonable to a corporate CEO, but a model that works for investment bankers simply doesn’t translate to the education setting.  The idea that performance pay will improve learning outcomes is based on the premise that teachers aren’t working hard enough. And if you have a mental image of teachers sitting around the lounge with their feet up while their students toil over mimeographed worksheets, you clearly haven’t been in our schools.  Public school teachers are among the hardest working people you could ever hope to meet.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink notes how odd it is that we apply merit pay to teachers but not to other public servants.  Why don’t we pay police officer based on how well they lower crime in the areas they patrol?  Would we ever link soldiers’ compensation to border security? Pay public health workers using data on disease and death rates?  Or do we recognize that there are far too many factors beyond their control for that approach to make sense?

In addition to its failure to improve student learning, there is another really important problem with performance pay.  It gives our policymakers cover for not seriously addressing the lagging base pay which forces many teachers to work a second or third job just for the privilege of educating our children.  Lawmakers can point to the millions of dollars spent to reward ‘good teachers’ and avoid actually raising salary to a livable wage. Meanwhile, NC teacher pay is mired in 37th place nationally, educator salaries are down 9.4% since 2009 when figures are adjusted for inflation, and we continue to lose teachers to neighboring states or to the private sector.

Rather than wasting taxpayer money on flawed compensation systems and bonuses that don’t help our students, let’s stop trying to apply logic that belongs in the corporate boardroom.  Let’s work to make our state a place where the best and the brightest will want to come and teach. Let’s focus on treating all of North Carolina’s educators like the hardworking professionals they are.   

Charlotte-area public education advocates to gather for next steps on February 2


2018 was one hell of a year for public schools.  

Last spring, a wave of empowerment swept over the country and saw teachers in several states stand up and say they’d had enough of the erosion of public education.  

teachers in Arizona, April 2018


Here in North Carolina, more than 20,000 educators took to the streets in Raleigh on May 16 in an unprecedented show of discontent, filling the legislative building with a sea of red and letting lawmakers know we intended to send those with a history of voting against the best interests of our teachers and children into retirement.

NC House Chamber, May 16, 2018

In November we did just that, toppling supermajorities in both the House and Senate and putting an end to a stranglehold on power that had been responsible for so much terrible education policy since 2010.  Governor Cooper now has the power to veto legislation that is bad for our schools with an important new budget on the horizon this summer.

So what’s next for North Carolina teachers and supporters of public education who want to keep their sleeves rolled up?  We still have a long way to go. The impacts of those years of bad policy are still being seen and felt every day in our schoolhouses in so many ways: rampant standardized testing of children who should be forming a lifelong love of learning, crumbling buildings that have seen too much neglect while tax breaks for the rich have been prioritized, staffing of support services such as school counselors and psychologists that lags way behind recommended levels, per-pupil funding and teacher compensation far below national averages, the list goes on and on.

But as we saw in 2018, we are powerful when we are organized and intentional.  

Across the country, the movement for stronger support of public schools continues to gather steam.  Just this week, teachers in the second biggest school district in the country won smaller class sizes, more support staff, more green spaces for school campuses, and a 6% raise in salary.  They did so by being organized and intentional.

North Carolina education advocates, including representatives of NCAE, Organize2020, NCTU, and Red4EdNC are gathering for regional meetings to talk about how we can continue to bring much-needed change to the public education landscape in 2019.  Meetings have already taken place in Raleigh and Asheville, and Charlotte and Greenville events will be held on Saturday, February 2. Event organizers will lead sessions on topics such as effective social media use, tips for interacting with legislators, and general organizing strategies.

Charlotte-area advocates, if you want to get involved, please join us at Walter G Byers Elementary School (1415 Hamilton St., Charlotte, 28206) from 10 AM to 4 PM on February 2.  Meetings are open to teachers, parents, students, and any other interested parties. Lunch and childcare will be provided.

You can RSVP for the event here.  Please help spread the word so we can turn folks out.  Hope to see you there!

School choice doesn’t happen in a vacuum

This week is National School Choice Week, and you’re going to hear a lot of charter school proponents talking about what a great thing choice is for families when it comes to education.  Folks who are opposed to unchecked charter expansion will be derisively labeled ‘anti-choice,’ as if their views run counter to American democratic values.  But the charter movement in our state is deeply problematic, and it’s important that we have a fact-based conversation about it.

On its face, choice sounds good.  We expect it when we go to the store for salad dressing, when we’re looking at books at the library, or when we’re holding the tv remote.  What kind of person could possibly be against others having the freedom to make choices when it comes to their children’s education? But what happens when the choices I’m making have a negative impact on those around me?  What happens when those choices don’t occur in a vacuum?

Charter schools were originally intended as places of innovation, where educators could develop new approaches in a less regulated setting and collaborate with traditional public schools to improve outcomes for all.  In some states, charter schools have been able to stay relatively true to that mission. Not so in North Carolina.

On a systems level, the good that charter schools are able to do is determined 100% by the policies that govern them.  In North Carolina, charter school policy is a mess, and that mess is leading to some really bad outcomes for our children.

Since the cap on charter schools was lifted by North Carolina’s state legislature in 2012, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled.  This year we have 185 charter schools in operation, serving more than 100,000 students across the state (overseen by a staff of 8 people).  Next year we’ll have 200.

The rapidly expanding charter schools siphon money away from traditional public schools and reduce what services those public schools can offer to students who remain, according to a recent Duke University study.  As students leave for charters, they take their share of funding with them–but the school district they leave is still responsible for the fixed costs of services such as transportation, building maintenance and administration that those funds had supported.  Districts are then forced to cut spending in other areas in order to make up the difference. In Durham, where 18% of K-12 students attend charter schools, the fiscal burden on traditional public schools is estimated at $500-700 per student.  As the number of charters increases, so will that price tag.

While charter schools in some states have been used successfully to improve academic performance for low-income students, in North Carolina they’ve been used predominantly as a vehicle for affluent white folks to opt out of traditional public schools.  Trends of racial and economic segregation that were already worrisome in public schools before the cap was lifted have deepened in our charter schools. Now more than two thirds of our charter schools are either 80%+ white or 80%+ students of color.  Charter schools are not required to provide transportation or free/reduced-price meals, effectively preventing families that require those services from having access to the best schools.

Academic achievement in our hypersegregated charter schools has played out along socioeconomic lines, just as it often does in traditional public schools.  Charter schools that serve primarily low-income North Carolina families have struggled, with percentages of charter schools rating an F according to our school report card system exceeding those of their traditional public school counterparts.  On the other end of the spectrum, charter schools earn more As than do traditional public schools. They’re also populated mostly by wealthy white students.

A 2014 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that students of color in segregated schools made smaller gains in reading than students of color in more integrated schools.  Research also shows that white students don’t experience a decline in those integrated settings. Segregated schools are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, higher teacher turnover and student mobility, and lower quality facilities, while students at more integrated schools see improved academic outcomes, increased educational attainment, and increased likelihood of living and working in diverse settings.  

Despite the clear benefits, it’s very rare in North Carolina for charter schools to be intentional about seeking out an integrated population of students.  In fact, until 2015, state law didn’t allow charters to use socioeconomic status in their admission lotteries. Even now that they have permission to do so, only three charter schools in the state actively use SES in their admissions process: Charlotte Lab School, Community School of Davidson, and Central Park School in Durham.

I don’t believe that charter schools are inherently bad, and I recognize that there are charter schools doing good work in North Carolina–even a handful that serve low-income students and do so well.  However, if our state legislators are really serious about providing families with good choices, they must enact policies that move us in the direction of racial and economic integration and don’t damage traditional public schools.  Until that happens, let’s stop pretending that school choice is good for everyone.