Merit pay questions continue to bedevil commission examining new teacher pay and licensure proposal

N.C. Association of Education Vice President Bryan Proffitt (left) and supporters protest new licensure and pay proposal in August. Photo: Greg Childress.

Questions about whether a controversial licensure and pay proposal for North Carolina’s teachers constitutes merit pay continue to bedevil state education leaders.

Members of the Professional Education Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) discussed the topic Thursday after it met to begin fine-tuning a draft of the new licensure and pay plan to send to the State Board of Education (SBE) for its approval.

“I think that is something that needs clarity,” said Commissioner Connie Locklear, director of the Indian Resource Center for the Public Schools of Robeson County. “I think that is a concern with a lot of individuals in the field that they’re considering this merit pay.”

Van Dempsey

Commission chairman Van Dempsey, dean of the Watson College of Education at UNC Wilmington, contends the proposal is not merit pay.

“In my mind, in the traditional sense of how we have used the term merit pay, I do not think it is a merit pay model,” Dempsey said.

Teachers have pushed back against the proposal, which they contend is an unwanted move to a system of merit pay that places too much emphasis on student scores on standardized tests. They argue that a better strategy to recruit and retain teachers — a stated goal of the new proposal — is to pay them a fair wage.

“North Carolina needs a teacher licensure program that respects teachers’ expertise, rewards their time in the profession, and offers support throughout the duration of their career,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of N.C. Association of Educators, said last month.

Catherine Truitt

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the panel Thursday that the feedback that she’s received about the proposal is mostly grounded in “misinterpretation or misstatements” of fact. The proposal is not a merit pay model, she said.

“When there is an absolute misunderstanding of facts when it comes to the model, that is problematic,” Truitt said.

She noted that Geoff Coltrane, senior education adviser in Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, recently defined merit pay as pay given out in competition against others.

“You’re being measured against yourself, not someone else,” Truitt said. “I think it is very important to clarify that compensating teachers according to the impact that they have in the classroom … is not merit pay.”

Here’s how the U.S. Department of Labor defines merit pay:

Merit pay, also known as pay-for-performance, is defined as a raise in pay based on a set of criteria set by the employer. This usually involves the employer conducting a review meeting with the employee to discuss the employee’s work performance during a certain time period. Merit pay is a matter between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative).

Maureen Stover, a commission member and former teacher of the year, reminded the panel that the goal behind the proposed changes is to improve academic outcomes for students and to get quality teachers in classrooms.

“I think because we’ve talked about ensuring teachers as effective practitioners and have the tools to be effective practitioners that have translated into some people thinking that we’re discussing merit pay,” Stover said.

It was unclear Thursday when the commission will turn the proposal over to the State Board.

Dempsey said the commission won’t rush the process.

“We want to be deliberate about making sure the document is clear,” he said. “But we also want to be respectful of the State Board’s interest in us getting the recommendations to them in a timely manner.”

After State Board approval, the proposal would go to the General Assembly where lawmakers will likely argue that the state can’t afford it, said Commissioner Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Center.

“We all know that’s not true,” Houston said. “There’s plenty of money in the budget to afford issues of this type, it’s just whether we want to spend it for those purposes.”

The commission will meet again in October.

The proposal would create a system of entry-level certifications to bring more people into the profession. One certification under the plan would serve essentially as a learner’s permit. It would allow aspiring educators with associate’s degrees to teach for two years while they earn a bachelor’s degree. Teachers working under that license would receive a base salary of $30,000.

Veteran teachers in leadership roles could earn an advanced teacher license. A National Board Certified Teacher working under that license with a master’s degree and more than 25 years of experience could earn more than $80,000 a year.

Veteran teachers would be held harmless if they lost pay under the proposal.

“On our modeling for this, those percentages were very, very low. It generally affected those teachers who had 25-plus years of experience, and were grandfathered into the master’s pay and had a National Board Certified License,” said Tom Tomberlin director of the department of District Human Capital at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Tomberlin said about 90% of teachers would receive “substantial” pay increases.

The average annual teacher salary in North Carolina is $54,150. The state is ranked No. 33 nationally in average teacher pay and much lower when salaries are compared to what individuals with comparable education and experience can earn in each state’s private sector.

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Merit pay questions continue to bedevil commission examining new teacher pay and licensure proposal