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.

NC Superintendent’s testing changes miss the point. The problem is in the stakes.

*note: This article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

This week I administered a long, multiple choice standardized reading test in my 7th grade Language Arts classes.  It was the second of three such assessments throughout the year which are intended to measure student growth before the End Of Grade test in May.  As usual, student reactions ranged from debilitating levels of anxiety to a profound lack of engagement–I had to wake up one student three times during the test.  In general, it was the exact opposite of how I want evidence of learning in my classroom to look.

In the middle of the test, an email from NC Superintendent Mark Johnson announcing changes in high-stakes standardized testing practices hit my inbox.  In the message, Johnson spoke of the harmful stress caused by our current assessment approach and the counterproductive testing culture that has developed over the last decade.  He went on to list a number of changes which will be rolled out this school year:

  • Reducing the number of questions on tests
  • Reducing the time students must sit for tests
  • Changing testing policies to reduce stress at schools around testing time
    • eliminating the restriction that prevented teachers from reviewing test-taking strategies with students before tests
    • eliminating the requirement to have proctors, and more. (My time as a volunteer proctor last school year was a critical firsthand experience.)
  • Working with local leaders to reduce the number of tests
  • Pushing to eliminate tests not required by Washington, D.C.
  • Giving students other ways to show progress if they have a bad test day
  • Using the appropriate amount of technology as a tool for students and teachers to personalize learning and eliminate tests

Oddly, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s official testing program update page contains no mention of the changes whatsoever (although Johnson’s campaign website posted a video of him talking about the topic on Spectrum News).  In a Raleigh News and Observer piece entitled “Testing in NC schools could get less stressful,” DPI spokesman Drew Elliot offered a little more detail, explaining that EOG tests would get shorter, lasting two hours instead of three, and that students may be permitted to leave the room once they’ve completed their test.  

It’s important for us to have conversations about the negative impact our testing culture has on children, and I appreciate the fact that those conversations have begun.  However, the changes proposed by Superintendent Johnson largely ignore the real problem. The problem is in the stakes.

North Carolina’s standardized testing culture is driven by state policies enacted under the Republican supermajority which award letter grades to schools based on scores, determine principal salaries and sizeable teacher bonuses through test results, and retain third graders who can’t pass the test (nearly 20,000 last year).  It’s rooted in federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a multiple choice test score.  

These policies result in tremendous pressure on school leaders and classroom teachers.  That pressure is passed on to students in the form of developmentally inappropriate, dull and repetitive learning activities in which the real goal is not authentic learning but getting the desired score.  

This year I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of our testing culture on my third grade daughter.  Too much of her class time is taken up by long multiple choice assessments. Her anxiety is more than any eight year old should be asked to shoulder, and opportunities for exploring her own interests and using her imagination–the very things that can help schools to create lifelong learners–are few and far between.  I know she is in for a long spring of test prep with her first End Of Grade tests on the horizon. How much of a difference does it really make if that test lasts two hours instead of three?

If our state superintendent is serious about changing our harmful testing culture, he must press state legislators for changes in the policies that are actually causing that culture.  He needs to advocate for policies which will afford teachers the time and trust to implement frequent, low-stakes activities for measuring student learning in ways that are healthy and motivational.  Until Mark Johnson becomes willing to lower the stakes, what he calls “revolutionary” reforms will, in reality, change very little for our teachers and students.

I cut standardized test prep out of my lessons and focused on relationships. Student growth was the highest of my career.

*note: this piece appeared in the Washington Post

If you’re a teacher, you might know the feeling.  You maintain a frantic pace all year long, trying to shoehorn an impossible amount of the prescribed curriculum into a limited amount of time because ‘it might be on the test.’  You sprinkle multiple choice test taking tips into your lessons to help kids squeeze out a few extra correct answers. Your students practice using released test items from previous years–whole class periods sent sitting in front of a computer screen in silence to build stamina in preparation for the year-end standardized test that will measure your success and theirs.

Yet when the scores come out in June, you’re dismayed with the results.  Why on earth did Maria score so poorly? How is it possible that Johnny shined in class but dropped two achievement levels on the test?

We really can’t blame teachers for taking this approach.  They know their students’ test scores will be displayed on the big screen during a faculty meeting for their colleagues to see.  Incoming tech-savvy parents will research whether their child is getting a ‘good teacher.’ A school report card grade will be determined in part by their students’ scores.  There may even be some money riding on the outcomes.  The pressure can lead to an inordinate amount of time spent preparing for the test.

But at some point we have to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is right for our kids.  At some point we have to wonder if our MO might be part of the problem.

After seeing the above cycle play out in my own classes too many times, last year I resolved to try an experiment.  I eliminated test prep from my curriculum, instead focusing on building strong relationships and devoting ample time to deep and engaging lessons with students at the center.

Here are a few of the goals I set for the year:

  • Getting to know my students as individuals:  I made it an intentional practice to talk more regularly with students about their personal lives, about their families and their interests outside of school.
  • Focusing extra attention on my quiet, withdrawn students:  I was especially deliberate about letting those under-the-radar students know that I saw them and that I appreciated their contributions to our class, even while respecting their boundaries.  
  • Sharing personal stories:  I was much more open to telling students about my own life–stories from my childhood to illustrate points in class, things about my family and personal experiences that were relevant to our discussions.  
  • Taking time for positive home-school communications:  On a regular basis, I contacted parents with good news regarding students’ progress or positive interactions that I saw.  I used this approach especially with students I suspected did not get enough of that type of reinforcement.
  • Pushing back against that panicky feeling that ‘we don’t have time for this’:  I made more time for engaging class discussions about everything from literature to current events instead of cutting meaningful learning experiences off early or eliminating them entirely just to keep on schedule.
  • Maintaining an upbeat, enthusiastic attitude:  I embraced my role as the model for what I wanted to see in my students and did my best to stay positive at all times–especially on days when I wasn’t feeling it.

As test season approached, I didn’t deviate from our routine except to let students know that the test was one important measure of their learning this year and that I wanted them to take it seriously and do their best.  Beyond that I told them I was already really proud of their progress this year and that this score was not the only way we had of determining their success. We kept on with business as usual right up until testing began.

When the individual score reports came back, I experienced the usual roller coaster of emotions–elation over students who showed tremendous progress, disappointment with results that were lower than I knew my students had wanted.  It wasn’t until I looked at overall numbers that I could see the real impact of the changes I had made. Students passing the state’s End of Grade reading test had increased by nearly 12%, and my value-added growth measure was the highest I’d ever received.  From a testing standpoint, it was the best result my students have achieved in the 23 years I’ve been in the classroom.

My experience from this past year confirms what research has been documenting for decades:  relationships matter.  Students who know that their teacher cares deeply about them and has their best interests at heart are more likely to be engaged and learning at a high level.  This is especially true if the learning opportunities they find when they walk into the classroom are deep and engaging. Furthermore, those students we’ve taken the time to build meaningful relationships with are more motivated to demonstrate their learning on a standardized test.  

We have to stop letting fear of results warp our classroom practice and do what is right for our students.  The results will take care of themselves.

Five things NC lawmakers can do for public education in 2019

*Note: this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

One of those states is North Carolina.  In May, 20,000 teachers filled the streets in Raleigh to express their dissatisfaction with the unravelling of public education under the GOP supermajority.  We vowed to topple that supermajority at the polls and put our state back on the right track when it comes to support for our schools.  In November we did just that, ending Republican supermajority control of both chambers of the legislature, electing many new, pro-education candidates and giving Governor Cooper the ability to sustain his veto.  

Last month the Wall Street Journal released a bombshell report:  teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate ever recorded.  Across the country, the growing number of unfilled teaching positions means schools must increasingly hire people with no education training or rely on substitute teachers.  The exodus comes as unprecedented teacher protests in several states have forced school closures and focused national attention on the desperate condition of our public education system.

Education advocates hope we’ll now see more of the transparency and dialogue that have been conspicuously absent from governance in North Carolina since 2011.  GOP leadership regularly buried major education initiatives deep in budget bills, preventing the thoughtful debate and stakeholder input that are so essential to good policy.  The current decline of our education system is a direct result of that misguided approach.

Rebuilding education in our state will be a massive undertaking.  Under the supermajority, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations have deprived the state of billions of dollars in revenue, per-student funding lags 25% below the national average, and teacher pay is mired in 37th place.  It may be difficult for our new-look General Assembly to know where to start, but here are five things state legislators need to do this year:

Restore teaching assistants:  We’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to budget cuts, crippling teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction and manage behavior.  Adding those positions back would improve student learning outcomes in a big way.

Provide trauma-informed training: Our students’ adverse life experiences take a tremendous toll on them both mentally and physically.  In Buncombe County, trauma-informed approaches have provided much-needed social and emotional support and resulted in improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  It’s time to take that movement statewide.

Overhaul school report cards:  Currently, NC school report card grades are based on an 80/20 achievement/growth formula which measures socioeconomic status more accurately than student learning.  If we insist on assigning a single letter to measure school quality, we should feature growth more prominently than achievement and stop unfairly stigmatizing high-poverty schools as failures.

Reinstate the charter cap: Since the legislature lifted the 100 school cap in 2011, the number of charters operating in NC has nearly doubled.  These schools are deepening economic and racial segregation and often failing to provide better alternatives to students who need them most.  Their unchecked growth is unhealthy for our education system.

Pay teachers well:  After teacher compensation dropped to national embarrassment level, legislators have provided moderate pay increases over the past few years.  North Carolina educators still earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average and plateau after only 15 years of service.  Paying teachers fairly must be a major priority in 2019.

Under the leadership of ‘Education Governor’ Jim Hunt, North Carolina was a national beacon in education.  When the General Assembly reconvenes on January 9, one of its newest members will be Hunt’s daughter, District 103 Representative Rachel Hunt.  Along with her new colleagues, Representative Hunt is eager to begin restoring the state to its position as a leader in education so that beacon can shine again.  North Carolina’s public school teachers are ready.