The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bad news for teachers comes in an automated phone call

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Despite decades of failure, merit-pay schemes for teachers continue to be pushed in states and school districts around the  country. In this post, Chris Gilbert, who teaches English at a high school and community college in North Carolina, explains a new scheme in North Carolina that involves merit pay for teachers and a loss of tenure rights. Gilbert’s work has appeared on this blog and in the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) publication called English Journal. He is a 2013 recipient of NCTE’s Paul and Kate Farmer Writing Award.

By Chris Gilbert

I recently received an alarming, automated phone call.  The recording revealed that the top 25 percent of teachers in my district will soon be offered a four-year contract and an annual $500 pay increase (added to the base salary each year of the contract) in exchange for relinquishing tenure rights.

After hearing of this new merit-pay plan, I had a few questions: How will these teachers be selected (this is currently undetermined)? What metric can effectively isolate a “top” teacher’s influence from other human beings, past and present, who influence a student? Do only 25 percent of my fellow educators deserve a pay raise? Why do the reformers promoting such an approach feel that market-based systems emphasizing competition are applicable to education?

In North Carolina, this policy continues a blatant assault on public education. In fact, my state, one that once celebrated its commitment to public education, now stands as a paragon of privatization policy. For other corporate-minded reformers, NC has provided the playbook for undermining educators, weakening a public institution, and privatizing the remains.

Recently, Professors Scott Imig and Robert Smith surveyed 630 educators and administrators, from 40 different NC school systems, regarding recent legislative changes. In their editorial, “Urgent wake-up call from NC teachers,” they share the results:

“Over 97 percent think the legislative changes have had a negative impact on teacher morale, 74 percent indicated they are now less likely to continue working as a teacher/administrator in North Carolina and 96 percent think public education in N.C. is headed in the wrong direction. Regardless of one’s political affiliation or profession, these statistics must be seen as deeply troubling.
“Among the major changes to education passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor in 2013 include another year without a pay increase for teachers (now almost five years in a row), the removal of tenure, the end of a salary increase for earning a master’s or doctoral degree, identification of only 25 percent of teachers to receive a $500 annual pay increase (in return for giving up tenure early) and the removal of class-size caps. The legislature said these changes were due to tight budgets. However, the sheer number and reach of the changes made it clear this was also a legislature eager to put its stamp on education. Overall, the changes reflect a deficit view of teachers and public schools by those in the state capital.”

While this survey did not reach all of NC’s teachers, the results are still striking. Further, the study provides a closer examination of a state’s workforce that recently experienced its highest turnover rate in five years.

There are numerous, recent legislative changes that contributed to this demoralization (the researchers neglected to mention the new voucher program and cuts to teacher assistants in their editorial) but I would like to focus on the forthcoming, top 25% “Model Teacher Contract” that I began with. There are misguided assumptions behind this policy, and many of these transcend the borders of North Carolina. Sadly, these beliefs inform corporate-based reform attempts throughout the country.

First, this policy reflects the view that teachers are inadequately motivated to do their jobs. If teachers simply increase effort, educational ills will be solved and student achievement will increase. This idea is incorrect, as the majority of teachers are dedicated, professional individuals who already give maximum effort. Dangling a monetary carrot in front of teachers will not magically enable them to overcome, or “teach through,” the innumerable challenges they currently face. Powerful teaching occurs when educators recognize they are valued, are provided continual opportunities to evolve, and work within systems that are functional and sufficiently resourced.

Second, if incentives are offered, they should be given to all educators, as limiting raises to the “top 25%” is a slap in the face to all other exemplary teachers who plan lessons, deliver instruction, and nurture both the emotional and cognitive growth of students. These educators have worked, and continue to work, in an environment subjected to the damaging policies mentioned above. To suggest that only 25% of a district’s teachers deserve a raise is to imply that the remaining 75% do an inadequate job. There is no evidence to substantiate this assumption.

Third, offering such contracts to the top 25% encourages a culture of competition and kills the collaboration that is integral to effective education. The idea that a single teacher’s influence can be isolated is absurd. My students benefit from my instruction, but they also benefit from our counseling staff, strong administrators, current teachers who assist and tutor them, past educators, and of course, their parents and community resources as well. It truly takes a village to educate students, but this policy does not acknowledge this reality. I detest educational policies that promote competition, as this capitalistic approach may produce winners, but it also creates losers. In the educational sphere, the losers are ultimately children, and they are typically those who are already underprivileged.

Lastly, I suspect value-added growth data (North Carolina uses a program called EVAAS) will be utilized in the selection process. Recent scholarship has highlighted the unreliability of this program, but multiple states continue to utilize it in order to quantify the “value” teachers add to students. It is flawed, but the system is also convenient for reformers.

Most troubling to me is that this policy, like many others, reflects a myopic approach to reform. Research has continually revealed that students’ out-of-school reality has the most influence on educational outcomes, yet the national reform narrative fixates on what occurs within schools and classrooms. Educational reform can provoke positive change, but without a corresponding focus on social and cultural transformation, these policies are likely to produce contrary outcomes.

The greatest danger is that we view this misguided policy, and others mentioned here, as unique to North Carolina; while my state seems to be trailblazing the path of market-based reform, readers most likely recognize similar practices in their own states as well. It will take a knowledgeable, emboldened populace to push back against the political and corporate forces that seek to demoralize teachers and monetize public education. I hope it is not too late to change course.