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Principals united on matters of merit pay, testing and school grading system

On Wednesday, House Speaker Thom Tillis presided over the second day of “Education Week,” hearing from principals across North Carolina who came to share their concerns about proposals related to merit pay, student assessment, funding and school grading, among other topics.

Noting that Governor McCrory’s budget, expected at the end of March, is likely to include flat funding for education, Speaker Tillis expressed his desire for school systems to be more creative and flexible in the way they spend their money. Tillis was also looking to hear dissent from principals about various proposals in the pipeline, including merit pay and the A-F scoring system for schools.

Randy Horne, principal of Southport Elementary School in Brunswick County and the parent of school aged children, was the first to offer his concerns about how much instructional time is lost at the expense of excessive testing. In creating and administering state mandated reading assessments, teachers at his school are losing 9-12 weeks of instructional time per year. Horne worried that such a reduction in teaching time will inhibit students’ ability to become proficient in reading by age eight. Noting that teachers are best positioned to intuitively and clinically judge who their best readers are, Horne said that lawmakers should consider giving them greater flexibility in choosing how to assess students in order to cut down on testing time in the classroom.

End of grade tests have been notoriously unpopular among educators who complain that high-stakes testing narrows curricula. In preparation for these tests, teachers tend to avoid inquiry-based projects utilizing critical thinking and employ “skill-n-drill” techniques that prepare student only for the test.

Guilford County elementary school principal and North Carolina principal of the year Patrice Faison agreed that students are subject to too many assessments. The focus, Faison offered, should shift to teacher preparation, whereby teachers can benefit from a larger clinical component in which they learn more updated methodologies on how to teach subjects such as reading. The alternative to excessive testing of students is to do a better job of preparing our teachers to teach.

Beaufort County Middle School Principal Dale Cole questioned the efficacy and fairness of the largely unpopular A-F school grading system established last year by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s Excellence in Public Schools Act. Cole pointed out that teachers frequently do much more than manage students’ academic progress—in many instances, teachers are essentially raising their students, alluding to out-of-school factors students deal with such as transience, poverty, and domestic abuse. “Let’s find other ways to measure the success of schools besides the synopsis of test scores at the end,” Cole said. Student portfolios and growth of students over time, instead of a snapshot of proficiency, are alternatives he offered.

The A-F grading system measures schools’ success based on student test scores and graduation rates, among other “snapshot” measures. Student growth over time does not factor into a school’s grade.

Tillis’ response to Cole’s concerns indicated his belief that out of school factors should be the domain of other government agencies when appropriate. The speaker cited the need to eliminate “scope creep” when schools are dealing with too much beyond their capacity. It was unclear how to go about determining which government agencies should be dealing with the sort of out of school factors Cole pointed out, and how to find the funds to do so.

Teacher tenure was briefly touched on and most agreed that those who have already earned tenure should be grandfathered in.

The session ended on the subject of merit pay for teachers – and several principals raised their voices in opposition to a merit pay system. Brunswick County Teacher of the Year Laura Hunter, who attended education week on principals’ day thanks to a schedule conflict, explained her position on merit pay. At a recent seminar she attended for teachers of the year, all of those in attendance were universally contemplating leaving the profession thanks to low wages, few resources and long hours. “If we introduce a merit pay program without addressing the teacher pay problem first, we will not be able to retain good teachers. Merit pay has merit, but not right now.”

Speaker Tillis indicated he would ensure that principals would work in collaboration with superintendents on the working groups he commissioned yesterday at the superintendents’ meeting. Tomorrow we will hear from teachers on the last day of education week in the House.