If you haven’t been following the wonky adventures of North Carolina’s Pathways to Excellence teacher merit pay proposal, the identities of the various players and their roles in developing this policy can be very confusing.
You have PEPSC, the Department of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education, the General Assembly, SREB, Eckel and Vaughan, the Human Capital Roundtable, the Belk Foundation and the Gates Foundation all with varying levels of involvement from the present going all the way back to when PEPSC was first created by state legislators in 2017.
However, there are two organizations that are flying well below the radar in terms actively pushing for North Carolina to move all teachers from an experience-based pay scale to merit pay: SAS Software and BEST NC.
SAS Software was founded by NC’s richest individual, James Goodnight. Goodnight continues to serve as SAS’s CEO, and his wife Ann Goodnight is the company’s Director of Community Relations.
SAS produces EVAAS, the controversial value-added software which SAS claims can measure precisely how much value a teacher adds to a student’s learning by using a secret algorithm to analyze student performance on end-of-year standardized testing.
Currently EVAAS data is used as a formative tool for North Carolina teachers but does not impact their base pay. However, the draft Pathways to Excellence policy proposes using EVAAS data to determine teachers’ salaries and opportunities for career advancement.
If North Carolina enacts Pathways to Excellence, it will mean a dramatic expansion in the use of EVAAS in our state. But if the model could then be spread to other states it would represent a financial windfall for the SAS corporation.
In March 2018, SAS’s Special Advisor on Education Initiatives Susan Gates began contacting PEPSC Chair Patrick Miller with the goal of pushing him toward a licensure reform model which would center effectiveness rather than experience (and what better way to measure that effectiveness than SAS’s EVAAS software?? 😬)
In September 2018 Gates again contacted Miller to talk about her work with the B-3 Interagency Council focusing on licensure modification and effectiveness. She mentioned a desire to coordinate with PEPSC and also name dropped Julie Kowal, who would be leading related work for UNC.
(Kowal had been in her position at UNC for only 3 months, having spent the 4 years prior to that as VP of Policy for BEST NC.)
BEST NC is a nonprofit which lobbies for education reform that benefits the business community. The organization is run by CEO Brenda Berg and was literally housed on SAS’s campus until just a couple of years ago.
SAS executive Ann Goodnight serves on BEST NC’s board. (Art Pope does too, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Several years ago BEST NC lobbied hard for changing NC principal compensation to a merit pay system using EVAAS scores which, remember, are produced by SAS and paid for by North Carolina taxpayers.
In 2017 the General Assembly passed a new system for compensating principals that was so flawed they immediately had to add a hold harmless clause to prevent a mass exodus of principals due to salary reductions.
WestEd’s 2019 action plan on Leandro noted the principal pay approach created a “disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools.”
But back to BEST NC and the current push to now move teachers to merit pay based on SAS’s EVAAS software…
Brenda Berg was added to the Human Capital Roundtable (the group that drafted the merit pay plan) in January 2020 and was thereafter strategically positioned to have major influence on the development of the Pathways to Excellence merit pay proposal.
Berg also managed to join two of the four PEPSC subcommittees that are currently working on the proposal–Licensure as well as Budget and Compensation.
She is in a great position to advocate for policies which will benefit SAS.
BEST NC holds an annual event called the Innovation Lab which in the past has been framed as an opportunity for educators and education stakeholders to brainstorm solutions to some of the problems facing education in our state.
Here’s their promo flyer from 2021 (purple highlighting is mine):
2022 is different.
As you can see from the below agenda, this year’s Innovation Lab is not about listening to educators or brainstorming solutions. Instead, the “lab” is purely a lobbying event aimed at advancing BEST NC/SAS’s agenda of passing the Pathways to Excellence merit pay plan. Nearly everyone who is presenting is either on PEPSC or the Human Capital Roundtable or works for DPI.
Just in case the conflict of interest wasn’t obvious enough, BEST NC’s merit pay lobbying event is even being held on the SAS campus.
BEST NC’s event comes after months of loud educator pushback on the deeply unpopular merit pay proposal. It fits nicely with marketing firm Eckel and Vaughan’s counsel to take actions that will help Pathways proponents “gain greater control of the narrative.”
Of course the narrative is of secondary importance to the impact of this whole mess. And when the real motivation behind education policy change is money, our students and teachers are generally the ones who end up losing the most.