North Carolina merit pay plan would tie teacher compensation to student survey responses

As end of year standardized testing for school year 2021-22 wraps up, another type of assessment could be on the horizon for North Carolina’s public schools. 

This time instead of teachers assessing students it would be the students who are assessing the teachers.  

The results would be used to determine not only how much educators are paid but also whether they’re able to keep their teaching license in our state.

The Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) has been working on a new model for teacher licensure and compensation for more than a year.  The commission is proposing moving to a system of merit pay which would completely do away with compensating educators based on their years of service and instead determine their pay and career advancement based on their effectiveness.  

Teachers would choose from a menu of effectiveness measures including standardized test-based EVAAS scores, a portfolio-style review of student work, and something called the Practical Educator Evidence Review (PEER).

The PEER measure would include three components:  principal evaluation, observation by a colleague, and student surveys.

Our students spend more time in our classrooms than anyone and are well positioned to offer feedback on their learning experiences.  For years I have surveyed my own students at the end of the year, and the insight they provide always helps me to improve as an educator.  But using that information to determine teacher salaries and career paths is a proposal that deserves careful scrutiny.

With only two months of PEPSC subcommittee work remaining before the licensure/compensation proposal is finalized, I filed a public records request with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) for examples of student survey questions that could be used in this manner.  

I was provided with a spreadsheet of dozens of questions that you can download or view in its entirety here (be sure to navigate the tabs at the bottom to see all the questions).

Some of the survey questions are reasonable enough, but others ask about factors that are clearly well beyond the teacher’s control.

Take this one, for example:

How pleasant or unpleasant is the physical space in this classroom?

 {very unpleasant, somewhat unpleasant, slightly unpleasant, /  neither pleasant nor unpleasant, slightly pleasant, etc.

Now, I’ve had a classroom that required a large trash can to catch the steady stream of water that came through the ceiling every time it rained.  

I’ve taught in trailers that should have been thrown off a cliff, spaces ruled by mold and cockroaches.  Those “classrooms” need a phrase much stronger than “very unpleasant” to accurately capture how inappropriate they were for human occupation. 

Decrepit buildings, insect infestations and crowded spaces are common in schools across our state.  These poor conditions aren’t the result of bad teaching, they’re the product of bad decision making by elected officials who believe tax cuts are more important than public education.  

How about this one?

How excited are you about going to this class? 

{Not at all excited Slightly excited Somewhat excited Quite excited Extremely excited}

My school district has adopted the EL English Language Arts curriculum for many grade levels including my own.  This curriculum has some advantages, but it’s heavily scripted and repetitive to a fault.  My students have spent the entire fourth quarter studying about plastic pollution in the ocean.  I’ve done my best to supplement and enrich, but after two months they’re understandably at the point where they just don’t want to hear it anymore.  It seems likely that my student responses to this survey question would capture their feelings about the design of this mandatory curriculum and not my personal approach to teaching and learning.

Here are some other questions from DPI’s document that seem potentially problematic:

Overall, how important is [SUBJECT] to you?

When you feel like giving up on a difficult task, how likely is it that this teacher will make you keep trying?

When you are not in class, how often do you talk about ideas from class?

When faced with a very challenging task, how hard do you work to complete it? 

If you came back to visit class three years from now, how excited would this teacher be to see you?

Teachers should not be held responsible for factors that are beyond their control.  Building conditions, poorly designed but mandatory curriculum, student interest in the content and challenging student behaviors all have a major impact on how students feel about school and how well they learn, but they are aspects of school that teachers often have little or no power to influence.  

My guess is that DPI’s reaction to this concern would be to say “Well, those aren’t the actual questions we’re going to use.  They’re just examples,” “We’ll figure it out during the implementation phase” or “It’s just a draft.”

Those responses would be irresponsible at best and negligent at worst.  There are only weeks left before the “draft” is final. What we can’t do is pass a bare bones policy and then trust DPI to do a good job of putting the flesh on those bones later. Not when the health of our whole system of public education is at stake.

Now is the time for the Department of Public Instruction and PEPSC subcommittees to provide specific details, listen carefully to feedback from stakeholders, and use that feedback to significantly improve the proposal.

Enacting a plan that pays educators based on unfair measures will only make it harder for us to recruit and retain the excellent teachers each of our children deserves.

If you’d like to share feedback on the proposal to compensate teachers based on student survey results, you can contact co chairs of the relevant PEPSC subcommittees at the email addresses listed below:

Licensure subcommittee:  

Dr. Ann Bullock:

Dr. Westley Wood:

Advancement and Development subcommittee:

Maureen Stover:

Dr. Michael Maher:

James Ford: The Toxic Racial Theory Poisoning the Country

Photo credit: Alvin C. Jacobs

*This piece was originally written in July, 2021.*

By now you must have heard about it. It is everywhere! And whether or not you’ve been paying attention, this insidious ideology has taken over the country and indoctrinated the populace for the last few years. It’s the toxic racial theory poisoning the minds of children and adults in our nation – Great Replacement Theory (GRT). 

‘You Will Not Replace Us’

GRT made headlines in 2017 during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, where a mob of torch-bearing white men marched around a recently-removed Confederate monument chanting “you will not replace us”. Attendees engaged in barbaric violence, injuring several people and ultimately killing activist Heather Heyer after a perpetrator drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters. This mantra is identified as a white supremacist slogan by the Anti-Defamation League and reflects a long-held fear of demographic change in America. In sum, Great Replacement Theory posits that a rising majority of people of color in the country is a plot to “replace” the shrinking minority white population, pushing them and their way of life into supposed extinction. The theory was popularized in 2012 by French author Renaud Camus who wrote a book of the same title. 

While originating in Europe as a response to increased Black and Muslim immigration, it has since gained a foothold in the United States. The ideology is typically not explicitly named, but the sentiments can be detected in the comments of politicians like former Rep. Steven King who in 2017 tweeted “you cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies” when discussing US immigration. Consider former North Carolina Lt. Governor Dan Forest who during his failed gubernatorial campaign in 2019 stated “no other nation […] has ever survived the diversity and multiculturalism that America faces today” supposedly due to a “lack of assimilation”. Or the now-abandoned proposed America First Caucus in the US House of Representatives, which was intended to preserve the so-called “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” of the country while warning the “unique identity” of the nation is at risk. Perhaps worst of all is the decidedly more flagrant messaging of Fox News Correspondent Tucker Carlson who in April plainly stated that a law undoing racially restrictive immigration by limiting it strictly to free “white person[s]…of good character” was the biggest attack on democracy. 

Taking all these examples together, are we supposed to pretend we don’t notice a pattern? It’s no mystery, the common thread in all the discourse is the notion of a white or Western European cultural and political supremacy that must be protected at all cost – including circumventing democracy itself, if necessary. All the pretense is gone at this point. We are instead left with raw nativism, no additives or preservatives.

GRT versus CRT

You likely do not know about this theory or the threat it poses because nearly every bit of corporate media’s coverage of racial resentment is concentrated on “Critical Race Theory”. The general population now believes they have a sophisticated understanding of the 30+ year old academic analytical legal framework that looks at how racism functions at the structural level, particularly in the post-Civil Rights era. This is thanks in large part to a coordinated far-right disinformation campaign. The phrase has been laundered unquestioningly by news outlets simply repeating the bogus accusations it is being taught in K-12 classrooms across the country without much critique or investigations of merit. We now know that pseudo-intellectuals like Cristopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and organizations like Parents Defending Education are behind this intentional misappropriation of the term. It now is a convenient stand-in for any investigation of systemic racism. 

Sadly, it has been effective in grabbing headlines, but also ineffective as even conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation reports many parents who know little about CRT have a neutral or favorable view. The backfiring of this propaganda should come as no surprise. The implication that examining systemic racism is somehow “un-American” isn’t landing so well after the racial reckoning of 2020. Nevertheless, conservatives seem to be banking on the idea that focusing on Critical Race Theory will somehow confirm Great Replacement Theory and trigger the historically reliable mobilizing force of white resentment. They are betting the house, better yet, the nation on the belief that a divided structure will somehow remain standing. The message is simple, “See! They are trying to replace you, your history, your worldview, your customs, etc. Be afraid!” Doubling-down and pushing all chips to the center of the political table. It’s hard to argue with their logic, for reasons they seek to prohibit from being included in US historical canon. But we know why. 

Culture War

In truth, the country has changed, but it’s not the existential crisis far-right extremists make it out to be. Change is an inevitable part of any nation’s evolution. Resistance to this shift in composition and culture – commonly called the “culture wars”—is about maintaining predominance, instead of plurality. The premise of the conflict rests on the idea that multiple things cannot exist harmoniously at once. That America will no longer be “America” without white social or cultural dominance. For them it’s zero sum, there is no power sharing to be had. You are either the oppressor or being oppressed, dominating or being dominated, there is no in-between. At a basic level, culture is connected to how people think, act and behave. For so long this has almost entirely been determined by white Americans and with all others (including Central and Eastern European immigrants initially) being forced to conform. However, after years of dependence on us – citizens of color as the mass producers of culture – it’s no wonder our influence and worldview is more widespread than ever. 

Just take a moment to consider the reactions to Beyonce’s halftime performance during the 2016 Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling in protest of police brutality and injustice, NBA and WNBA players donning shirts that say Black Lives Matter or weighing-in on electoral politics, or even race car driver Bubba Wallace leading the effort for NASCAR to ban the confederate flag from all events. Now add the 2020 Movement for Black Lives, the culminating global protests and the unprecedented multiracial coalitions, and anyone can see something is different. The faux outrage is a stubborn resistance to the changed power dynamic, one that permits historically excluded others to speak in their own voices and see the world through their own eyes. 

This was not supposed to happen. Those people are supposed to “shut up and dribble”. They are supposed to enjoy their immense financial rewards, huge platforms, and choose to remain mute on issues of societal import to their communities. If things are so bad, they should leave the country, right? But that ain’t us, in fact it never has been. The difference now is they no longer have the unilateral ability to silence us. Our perspectives are maligned as “woke”, “political” and “divisive”. But when one asks the simple question, “for who?”, deductive reasoning makes it obvious. Any shift of the national culture to reflect those who have historically been on the margins is seen as a lost battle in a sadistic war for cultural supremacy. This is GRT!  They’re crying about the sky falling when it’s actually just opening up.  

White Supremacy Manifestos

The danger of these disinformation campaigns cannot be understated. They signal desperation and a racially-primed panic that often plays out in violence. This is why for students of history, the armed insurrection of January 6th was no surprise. GRT themes are consistently captured in the manifestos of white supremacist terrorists like Dylan Roof, killer of 9 parishioners in the Charleston Church Massacre of 2016 and Patrick Crusius, the El Paso Shooter who killed 20 people outside of a Walmart in 2018. Both murderers seemed fixated on Black and Hispanic “invasions” of the country. While many politicians and pundits railing against antiracism are not terrorists, the substance of their rhetoric is nearly ideologically identical. The widespread voter suppression and rash of bills attempting to whitewash history are all connected. This should concern all of us if we consider far-right extremists as the greatest terrorist threat in the US and research that shows white Americans who hold racial prejudices are less committed to democracy and more supportive of authoritarianism. 

This is GRT, and it is the most dangerous racial theory being propagated in the country, not CRT. It is white identity politics in self-destruct mode, and if we do not work feverishly to name and eradicate it this disingenuous strategy may just succeed in preserving the America of the past while preventing it from having any foreseeable future. 

Department of Public Instruction admits new teacher compensation proposal is merit pay

Last month’s release of a proposal to move educators to merit pay has not been particularly well received by North Carolina teachers.

And who can blame us? 

We’ve borne the brunt of more than a decade of General Assembly policy that has made a career in public education in North Carolina deeply unappealing.  We’ve endured a two year pandemic which upended teaching and learning and spawned a massive teacher shortage that has vastly increased the burden on those of us who have chosen to stay.  

We are long overdue for some good news.

So you’ll forgive North Carolina’s teachers for being a little grumpy at the prospect of having our pay and career advancement opportunities based on effectiveness measures that are subjective or hold teachers responsible for factors beyond their control:

➢ Standardized test scores
➢ Principal evaluations
➢ Peer evaluations
➢ Student surveys

That grumpiness has translated to a whole lot of negative feedback being provided to members of the State Board of Education who will ultimately decide on the proposal as well as to members of the committees currently working on the draft.

One of those members happens to be State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, leader of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  Truitt sits on the State Board of Education as well as the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) overseeing this work.

When teacher outrage about the plan erupted, Superintendent Truitt’s initial response was to deny the proposal was merit pay at all.  At the April 6 meeting of the State Board of Education, Truitt absurdly claimed that since the plan offers multiple ways to demonstrate effectiveness it can’t be considered merit pay.  

But last week DPI’s Dr. Tom Tomberlin disagreed.

Dr. Tomberlin serves as DPI’s Director of Educator Recruitment and Support.  He sits on all four PEPSC subcommittees and directs their work, and he has shaped the licensure and compensation model more than any other individual.

Tomberlin apparently decided it was time for DPI to stop denying the obvious:

“I can’t get away from the fact that, arguably this is… I mean, we’re saying we’re going to pay people based on their skills and their performance.  [laughs]

That kind of is the definition of merit pay.”

Dr. Tom Tomberlin

Tomberlin then went on to say the group needed to better explain how this version of merit pay differs from its past iterations in our state.  He said the difference is that, in the past, merit pay has been used more narrowly to award bonuses, but this proposal would change the whole organizational structure.

In other words, Tomberlin seemed to be saying, the difference is that this time merit pay will be the entire foundation of how we compensate teachers and determine their career trajectories.  

And that’s supposed to make teachers feel better about this plan?

Now that we’ve established that the proposal is indeed merit pay, it’s time for an honest and transparent conversation about whether it’s possible for a system of merit pay to be equitable to teachers.  

We also need to talk about how enacting a flawed licensure and compensation system in the middle of a pandemic and during the worst public school staffing crisis in recent memory would impact our teacher pipeline and our ability to put an excellent educator in every classroom.

That is our goal, right?


You can view the entire April 27 meeting of PEPSC subcommittee co-chairs below:

Member of NC committee working on merit pay proposal urges colleagues to listen to teachers and adjust based on feedback

Teacher Appreciation Week starts today, but this North Carolina teacher would like to direct some appreciation to Dr. Westley Wood.

Dr. Wood’s day job is Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Human Resources for Wilkes County Schools, but he also serves on the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC).

PEPSC is the group currently working on a proposal to scrap North Carolina’s experience-based teacher pay scale for a merit pay system that would compensate educators based on effectiveness measures such as standardized test results, principal evaluations, and student surveys.

Last week members of the PEPSC commission, subcommittee co-chairs and Department of Public Instruction (DPI) staff met to discuss the draft proposal.

DPI’s Director of Educator Recruitment Tom Tomberlin had just finished explaining that he was putting together a video to be shown at sessions of an upcoming teacher listening tour so there would be “completely consistent” messaging. (As an aside here, I’d like to note the fact that Tomberlin sees messaging as a primary focus of these sessions raises important questions about whether DPI intends to hold a listening tour or a marketing tour.)

After listening to his colleagues talk about teacher feedback collection, Dr. Wood spoke up:

“I think we as the PEPSC commission have got to listen to the feedback and take action as needed from the response of our teachers. They’re the ones impacted, in their eyes, the most at this time by this model, and we’ve got to listen and adjust and take action based on feedback we get, whether it’s positive or negative.

Dr. Wood is right that North Carolina’s teachers will be heavily impacted by any overhaul of licensure and compensation. We are also best positioned to shine a light on exactly how implementation of a merit pay system would play out at the school level. Our concerns should not be condescendingly shrugged off as “misconceptions.” Our feedback should be solicited in good faith and used in decision making.

But let’s not forget who is ultimately most impacted by North Carolina’s leaky teacher pipeline: It’s the students who have the constitutional right to excellent teachers.

If we enact a sweeping merit pay system based on subjective and inaccurate measures and throw open the classroom doors to unprepared teachers, our pipeline crisis is going to get worse.

And, as usual, North Carolina’s children will lose the most.


(You can listen to the entire PEPSC meeting below. The section with Dr. Tomberlin starts at approximately 48:00)