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Districts grapple with directive to identify top 25 percent of teachers

fr declinetosignUsually, you’d expect a school system to jump at the chance to give its teachers a raise, but superintendents statewide are now rolling up their sleeves for an unpleasant task: figuring out a process to determine the top 25 percent of teachers in their district and offering those people a pay increase. 


“I hate it,” said Jackson County Superintendent Mike Murray. “I’m passionate about hating it.”

Teachers, administrators and attorney Dean Shatley Jr. echoed Murray’s sentiment at an informational meeting for Macon County teachers last week, where Shatley spent an hour explaining the legislation and answering questions. Usually, said veteran teacher John deVille, teachers and lawyers find themselves “duking it out,” but this time they’re seeing eye-to-eye.  

“In this case, we’re on the same side,” said deVille, vice president of the Macon County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “This law is so crazy and so goofy that people who are normally against each other have closed ranks.” 

But what, exactly, is so bad about offering some teachers a pay raise? 

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According to teachers and administrators, just about everything. They’re upset that accepting the increase requires permanently signing away tenure rights in exchange for a four-year contract, a trade-off that would remain in effect even if lawsuits attempting to overturn the N.C. General Assembly’s decision to do away with the tenure program are successful. They’re upset that the pay increase is minimal — just $2,000 spread over four years — and that the legislature’s one-year-at-a-time budgeting process is only able to guarantee funds for the first year. They’re upset at what they see as a policy that will pit teachers against each other, rather than encouraging an atmosphere of creative collaboration. 

And, ultimately, they’re upset at the directive itself. Teaching a class isn’t like running a race, so how do you determine who’s in the top quarter? Different educators do different jobs, teachers say, and there’s simply no way to objectively compare an elementary guidance counselor’s performance to that of a high school gym teacher. 

“Every way we skin this cat, we come up with real problems,” said Chris Baldwin, Macon County superintendent. By June, Baldwin must offer raises to 68 of the district’s 278 eligible teachers. “Two hundred ten folks are going to be treated unfairly. I don’t see any of these plans that gets us away from that.”

But they have to try. The law states that superintendents must offer the raises based on a review of teacher performance and evaluation, so districts are starting the process of developing the criteria they’ll use to offer raises by the June 30 deadline. 


Macon County

In Macon County, the school board has come up with three options, all of which involve a random lottery for some or all of the recipients. They’re sending a survey out to their teachers this week to get feedback on the options, and then the board will consider which, if any, of the plans to adopt. 

“The board are considering these three options or any modification of these three, or a completely different plan,” Baldwin said. 

One choice is to offer the raises to the past three teachers of the year from each school in Macon County, accounting for 33 of the 68 recipients. Using a lottery system, Baldwin would then award each of the remaining raises to a certain number of teachers at each of the 11 schools, based on the proportion of the district’s tenured teachers who work there. 

“The problem with that is there are some partial teachers,” Baldwin said. “For instance, Union Academy might receive 2.5 [contracts] based on the number of career teachers. Nantahala might have 1.5. We have to deal with all those decimal points.”

Alternatively, the district might make the first pass by selecting all teachers who have been in Macon County Schools for three years and have proficient scores on their teacher evaluations. A lottery system would fill any remaining slots. Or, if the district goes with option three, it could put all the eligible names in a hat for a district-wide drawing. 

A lottery system is legal, Shatley said, so long as school districts have a first set of criteria that’s based on teacher performance. 

 “We’ve counseled clients to have something else in between, to narrow it down before you go to random selection,” he said. 

Some level of randomness will probably be involved, Baldwin said, because the process is random to begin with. 

“We are not producing widgets or anything like that that you can fit into a perfect mold,” he said. “We are dealing with different kids ever day and different needs every day.”


Haywood County 

Haywood County, however, intends to keep randomness as far from its selection process as possible. A committee composed of the district’s human resources director, a school board member, several teachers, representatives from professional organizations, an assistant principal and a principal are busy unpacking Haywood County’s teacher evaluation rubric, trying to determine exactly how it can best be used to accurately select the district’s 25 percent best teachers. 

“If we’re going to have to evaluate 25 percent, we really want to do the very best job we can,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools. 

The school board has not yet made a decision on the process it will use, but it’s had the ball rolling since the fall. Before Christmas, Superintendent Anne Garrett appointed the committee, directing them to look closely at the law, seek legal advice and make a proposal about the process for selecting teachers. 

“What the board is considering is to use the evaluation results from last year,” Nolte said. “That would allow us to have results that were untainted by the law.”

In other words, a principal who wanted to favor a particular teacher wouldn’t be able to artificially inflate his scores, or visa versa. Of the six standards included in teacher evaluations, the board is considering basing the contract offers on the two that apply most widely — leadership and instructional methods. 

But the evaluation rubric is still a complicated instrument, and some principals are always going to score their teachers harder than others. To compensate for that reality, the board is considering taking one of its teachers’ suggestions, based on that person’s experience in the U.S. Navy — comparing each teacher’s score to the average score given out by that person’s principal or supervisor. 

“If you fall below the average for your supervisor, you’re probably not going to be in the top 25 percent,” Nolte said. “If you fall above it, you have a pretty good chance.”

In the event of a tie, additional qualifications such as a National Board Certification or licensure to teach multiple sections would be the decision-makers. That seems like the most fair way to do it, Nolte said, but that doesn’t mean that he’s happy about having to do it. 

“Even though it may make sense and may be objective, we don’t like it,” he said. 

Having to eliminate 75 percent of staff from getting one of the pay increases isn’t fair, Nolte said, because Haywood County performed in the top 15 percent of North Carolina districts this year. Maybe 100 percent of its teachers aren’t exceptional, but more than 25 percent are, he said. 

“We think it’s ridiculous that if we’re going to make the offer of a small pay increase that it only be offered to 25 percent of our employees,” he said. 

However, that’s the law, so the Haywood County board will be considering these ideas in its upcoming meetings before deciding which procedure to adopt. 

“I believe our board is taking this very seriously,” Nolte said. 


Jackson County 

Murray, meanwhile, is using a heavily feedback-based approach to decide on a system for Jackson County. He began by talking to the school board and school administrators, trying to gauge reactions and narrow down the number of teachers that would receive the raises. Then, he invited the district’s attorney to meet with teachers in an assembly similar to the one Macon County held last week. More than 60 percent of the district’s teachers came, Murray said. 

All that took place before Christmas. After the holiday, Murray gave teachers three weeks to answer a survey about the process, asking which criteria they would like to see considered in selecting raise recipients. Now, the personnel department is compiling those answers to look for common themes. 

“A lot of folks wrote in that they think that if you had a National Board [Certification] or a higher degree, that should be in the criteria,” he said. 

Murray is contemplating sending out a follow-up survey to clarify some points — principally, whether teachers want to see the selection made district-wide or done proportionally by school — and plans to propose criteria to the board next month. The outcome will then go out to teachers for review and to Murray for the final decision. 

“When it comes right down to it, I want their opinion,” Murray said. 

He’s not required to make a decision until June, he said, so he’s planning to take his time to come up with the best process possible. To wit, Swain County, while currently working on its plan to distribute the contract offers, has not yet come up with a proposal it is prepared to discuss publicly. 

And, Murray cautioned, the raise recipients will not represent a comprehensive list of the best teachers in Jackson County, regardless of the district’s criteria for awarding them. 

“Some teachers will refuse to take it. Your one- to three-year teachers aren’t even eligible for it,” he said. “I do not want folks to think this is the tell-all for who is the best teacher in Jackson County.”

And if the cluster of teachers — many of whom have held that profession for decades — crowding around a sign reading “Decline To Sign!” at Franklin High School is any indication, plenty of quality teachers will not be on that list. 

“That little bit of money that is supposed to happen the first year that you sign, it’s not guaranteed to continue,” Henning said. “The money has not been allocated, so you’re very likely to lose your tenure and not be guaranteed to get an increase.”


What’s all the fuss about?

With a 2012-13 state rank of 46 in starting teacher salary and no raises in the past six years, North Carolina has plenty of teachers who are hankering for a bigger paycheck. A law passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 2013 to give pay increases to the top 25 percent of teachers in each district, then, would seem likely to garner support. Instead it’s raising ire among teachers and administrators alike. 

“I’m really at the end of my career, but this is an issue that really affects everybody in the state, everyone that’s concerned about education,” said Julie Henning, who has taught in Macon County Schools for more than 30 years.

The first hurdle is determining how, exactly, you rate a teacher. John deVille, a veteran social studies teacher at Franklin High School, calls the process “a cruel fool’s errand,” maintaining that comparing the outcome of, say, a band director’s work to that of a kindergarten teacher is impossible and capable only of causing division among people who should be working together. 

The terms of the increase are also a bone of contention. To accept the raises, teachers must sign a four-year teaching contract that requires them to waive any tenure rights they have. The legislature has passed a law that would eliminate tenure for all teachers beginning in July 2018, but lawsuits against it are pending. If the law were overturned, teachers would keep their tenure, but those who had signed it away would not. So, those who sign are taking a chance. 

Then, there’s the issue of funding. The pay increases are small, relatively speaking. For the four years of the contract, the teachers’ salary would rise by $500 per year, before taxes, so that a teacher making $40,000 per year before signing would receive $42,000 by the final year of the contract. The catch, though, is that budgets only allocate funds for one year at a time, not four, making many teachers nervous that they would sign away their tenure rights for a program that would eventually become unfunded. 

“Technically only one year is funded,” said Dean Shatley Jr., a band director-cum-education attorney who walked Macon County teachers through the law at a specially scheduled school board meeting Feb. 5. “Will the legislature fund year two, three or four? Of course I have no idea, and I would not presume to guess what this legislature would do. However, I would assume they would follow through on their promise and commitment.”

But it’s still a risk, teachers say, and they also point out that nothing in the contract says that their pay won’t go right back to pre-signing levels after the four years are over.  

“That’s not a good tradeoff for some people to get a small increase that is not guaranteed to continue in exchange for giving up their rights,” Henning said. 

Instead, teachers say, the legislature should give an across-the-board raise so that teachers can progress through a salary schedule based on how long they have taught in North Carolina. 

“I think in North Carolina we had a fairly functional salary schedule that worked fine,” said Tyler Faetz, English teacher at FHS. “You thought you had a career. You thought you could see forward to 30 years of service.”

To Faetz’ point, Gov. Pat McCrory announced Monday, in conjunction with Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Leader Thom Tillis, that he plans to push North Carolina’s starting teacher salary from $30,800 to $35,000 over two years. McCrory’s plan would raise starting salaries $2,200 this year and $2,000 the following year. According to a press release, more raises for teachers and other state employees are in the works as “the revenue outlook becomes clearer and available.”

The teachers themselves, though, say they just want a policy that indicates that they are valued and respected.

“The degree to which we are valued in North Carolina is reflected in our pay and that our rights to due process are provided for,” Henning said. 

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