Controversial school reformer Michelle Rhee talks teacher raises, pay-for-performance in N.C.

Former D.C. teachers’ union head George Parker and school reformer Michelle Rhee.

Raising pay for teachers and implementing fair, pay-for-performance measures is a path to better student performance, controversial former D.C. public schools chief Michelle Rhee told North Carolina reporters Tuesday afternoon in Raleigh.

Rhee was in town for a private legislative gathering Tuesday night hosted by BEST N.C., a Raleigh-based group of education lobbyists led by prominent North Carolina business leaders, including conservative mega-donor Art Pope.

According to Rhee—whose three-year tenure in the nation’s capitol prompted rising test scores but also fierce criticism over cheating allegations, her push to strip teachers of tenure rights and the termination of hundreds of teachers and administrators—state leaders should not be deterred by educators’ resistance to linking student performance to pay.

“It is absolutely necessary to push through that hard part, that initial push-back,” Rhee said Tuesday. “… Had we abandoned ship after the push-back we got in the first 18 months, nothing would have changed.”

Rhee’s visit with North Carolina legislators Tuesday prompted some consternation from public school advocates who noted neither the media nor the public was invited to attend the polarizing school reformer’s meet with lawmakers. BEST N.C. leaders organized a media session Tuesday afternoon after that criticism late last month.

Her visit comes months after Rhee’s name was floated as a potential candidate for U.S. education secretary under President Donald Trump before she removed herself from consideration in November.

Rhee was joined by George Parker, a former D.C. teachers union head who grew up in North Carolina. Parker clashed with Rhee over teacher firings and contracts during her time in D.C., but the two have since joined forces through Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, an advocacy group for K-12 reform that’s lobbied for school choice and axing teacher tenure.

While Rhee touched on the controversial confirmation Tuesday of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, most of Parker and Rhee’s comments focused on their work in D.C., in which the two hammered out a new teacher pay and evaluation system that sacked hundreds of educators, but delivered major pay increases for capitol teachers.

According to Rhee, reforms in D.C. were necessary because 92 percent of students were operating below grade level. Yet, at the same time, roughly 99 percent of teachers were rated as “doing a great job,” she said.

“You can’t have a system that is just continually failing kids and yet we’re saying to all the adults, you’re doing just fine,'” she added.

Rhee pointed out teacher pay in D.C. once averaged about $87,000, among the lowest in the nation. Today, it’s about $144,000, and the district’s student achievement has been on the rise, although critics note performance gaps between different socioeconomic groups in D.C. schools persisted under Rhee.

And while the unpopularity of the Rhee-led reforms reportedly pushed her out of a job, Rhee and Parker said their work on pay and evaluation is gaining traction with educators today.

“I don’t get people who say money doesn’t matter,” said Parker. “It does. When you’ve got house loans to pay and children to feed, money does matter.”

Parker added that he believes policymakers and residents must rethink their view of teachers.

“We’ve got to get away from teachers being a volunteer organization,” said Parker. “That if you teach school it’s that second thing you do, that it’s not a real profession, that it’s more about caring and sacrifice and humanity.

“No, the money helps and the money counts and if you’re a professional, you want to be paid as a professional.”

Teacher raises and pay-for-performance have been boiling controversies in North Carolina in recent years as the state’s national teacher pay ranking plummeted and officials reported educators leaving the profession or the state for work elsewhere.

NCAE President Mark Jewell

And while state lawmakers have approved modest raises in recent years, bringing average teacher pay to just under $50,000, public school advocates have been witheringly critical of the legislature for not doing more.

Meanwhile, teacher advocates have been widely opposed to pay-for-performance reforms lobbed by some GOP lawmakers, believing it could have a negative impact on educator morale and deter educators from seeking jobs in hard-to-staff, low-performing schools.

“One of the most immediate impacts we can have on student success is to recruit the best teachers and to keep them in the classroom by making a long-term commitment to paying them as professionals,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said Wednesday, one day after Rhee’s comments.

“We cannot continue to have the same pay proposals in recent years that leave out our most experienced educators. Pay for performance schemes that overly rely on test scores are destined to fail because they don’t capture the true contributions educators make to learning.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Rhee emphasized the importance of a “fair” teaching evaluation system, pointing out 50 percent of a teacher’s performance grading in D.C. was based on students’ academic gains. The remaining 50 percent was split between other factors such as administrators’ observation of classroom practices and teachers’ “contributions to school community.”

Despite controversy around her time in D.C., Rhee complimented the district for its evaluation system and its frequent tinkering based on teacher feedback.

“People have to be able to see, wait, the sky didn’t fall,” said Rhee. “All the bad things people said were going to happen didn’t happen and I’m being recognized and rewarded for my work.”

North Carolina’s system of teacher evaluation is certainly a point of conflict today. The state’s system bundles student growth on testing as one of six “standards” for a teacher, also including more abstract standards for demonstrating leadership, a knowledge of course content and more.

Advocates have complained that the evaluation system and its growth measure can be a source of great anxiety for North Carolina teachers, particularly those working in low-performing schools, many of which are located in poor, rural districts with meager means for local teaching supplements.

Rhee and Parker said crafting an evaluation system and performance-based pay requires significant feedback and, ultimately, “buy-in” from teachers for it to be effective.

BEST N.C. President & CEO Brenda Berg said Tuesday that, with roughly half of North Carolina students failing to meet academic benchmarks, her organization believes outreach to educators will be key.

Berg complimented recent teacher pay increases from the legislature, as well as promises to install further raises this year.

“We’re really optimistic about that, but that doesn’t change the experience of the teacher,” said Berg. “We still need to pay teachers more.”

On Tuesday, Rhee also took up criticisms of “over-testing” in schools and a growing reliance on standardized testing to assess teachers. Some Rhee opponents attribute the rise in emphasis on testing to her highly-publicized run in D.C.

Rhee said over-testing is an issue that’s often overlooked in public schools, arguing that educators who focus more on “teaching to the test” rather than a broad curriculum are less successful with children.

“That’s a conversation that has to had,” Rhee added. “Because I think it’s frustrating to parents and teachers and administrators. Like everything in education, you oftentimes have two camps on extreme sides and the answer is more in the middle. Yes, you have to have accountability. Yes, you have to have standardized ways of measuring student achievement, but it has to be balanced with things that we know work.”

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