If there is one thing that education researchers agree on, it’s that teachers are the most important in-school factor in determining students’ academic success. However, for the past 12 years, North Carolina policymakers have focused on undermining teachers. As a result, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has plummeted, and districts are finding it increasingly difficult to fill vacancies.
In response to these challenges, leaders at the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) seek to radically overhaul the system for certifying teachers and granting pay increases. State leaders are pushing to end the current practice of paying teachers based on their credentials and years of service. They want to replace the current system with a plan called Pathways to Excellence (PtE). Under this plan, teacher pay will be based on measures of effectiveness and willingness to assume additional responsibilities.
The hope is that PtE will improve the recruitment and retention of great teachers. It is unclear, however, whether such changes will be successful. There are many reasons for skepticism, including:
- Major aspects of the plan, including how to measure teacher performance, remain undeveloped, and it is unclear whether the General Assembly will provide the staffing and funding necessary to implement the proposal fully
- A performance pay plan fails to address the underlying causes of declining interest in the teaching profession
- Performance pay has, at best, a mixed track record; no state has implemented a successful performance pay plan, and few locally implemented performance pay plans have improved test scores or teacher retention
- The plan potentially increases the share of teacher candidates from alternative programs; these candidates tend to have lower retention and effectiveness than candidates from university preparation programs
- The plan lacks support from teachers
By pursuing this path, state leaders are distracting from evidence-based policies that are much more likely to improve the recruitment and retention of excellent teachers in North Carolina. The debate over performance pay will almost certainly distract from proven measures to increase teacher recruitment and retention, including:
- Providing broad-based pay raises to make teacher pay competitive with other college degree-requiring professions in North Carolina
- Improving classroom conditions by implementing the Leandro Plan, which will provide educators with the resources and additional supports necessary to help students thrive
- Restoring benefits that legislators have removed over the past decade, such as career status, master’s pay, and retiree health care benefits
- Permitting collective bargaining so that teachers can directly negotiate for better working conditions and a voice in the policymaking process
- Allowing teachers the freedom to be professionals rather than trying to police how teachers approach controversial subjects and placing an overly narrow focus on tested subjects
- Expanding the social safety net to reduce the barriers to learning placed in front of
students from families with low incomes
- Given PtE’s thin research base and theoretical underpinnings, it is unclear why supporters are pushing
for this version of a merit pay program for a statewide rollout
That is not to say there isn’t room to improve North Carolina’s teacher licensure process or to develop new career pathways for teachers. However, such efforts should adhere to the following principles:
- Major reforms should only be considered after policymakers have addressed fundamental shortfalls in teacher pay and working conditions
- Be developed collaboratively with educators
- Provide flexibility to meet local staffing challenges
- Implementation should be deliberate and iterative so that implementation challenges are addressed prior to a larger rollout
Unfortunately, PtE fails to adhere to these principles. Advocates continue to push for a statewide rollout of a one-size-fits-all model that has limited input from educators (and is, in fact, opposed by the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, North Carolina Association for Educators (NCAE), and the N.C. Association of Colleges for Teacher Education).
North Carolina’s teacher shortage demands bold, immediate action. Those actions, however, will be most effective if they respond to the problems creating the teacher shortage.
Policymakers have saddled North Carolina’s schools with increasing challenges since the Great Recession. Lawmakers have cut school budgets, ignored crumbling school buildings, allowed teacher pay to languish behind inflation, and stripped educators of important benefits. More recently, policymakers have been fomenting bigoted public hatred against teachers who dare affirm the humanity of their Black, brown, and queer students or who dare to teach a nuanced, honest appraisal of history and current events.
PtE ignores that these challenges are all reasons why schools are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain great teachers. Its solutions are, at best, unproven and are unlikely to improve conditions for students. By distracting from schools’ real problems, PtE could make things worse.