Never before has the teaching profession undergone such dramatic upheaval! Why? Because there’s a fairy tale being spun by those who do not support or understand public education. It’s a captivating story. You’ve heard it. Our schools are failing. Public education is a broken system. We must fix it. Of course, someone must be blamed for this mythical failure. And that someone is the classroom teacher. If you diagnose the wrong disease and then treat the patient accordingly, the patient will not get better.
Results from the 2013 N.C. legislative session focus on getting rid of “ineffective” teachers while not addressing keeping good teachers. This has led us to the wrong solutions for an almost nonexistent problem.
We have the highest number of national board certified teachers in the nation; 96 percent of our classroom teachers currently are rated as proficient. The Center for Public Education notes: “Having an effective teacher consistently rises to the top as the most important factor in learning – more so than student ethnicity or family income, school attended, or class size.” Teachers with experience, advanced degrees and subject-specific certification remain critical to student achievement as noted by Dr. Helen Ladd of Duke University, especially with economically disadvantaged children.
Far from tweaking the teacher evaluation process, current legislation takes away an educator’s career status – turning our teachers into temporary, year-to-year contractors without protection for retaliatory or arbitrary firing. Forcing teachers on contracts will eventually lead to legal issues, lower teacher morale and their continued exodus out of public schools.
The elimination of additional pay for earning advanced degrees denies the value of continued professional development, which research ties to student achievement. Efforts to establish merit pay sets up competition with little financial reward and destroys the cooperation and teamwork that is the heart and soul of excellent teaching. Students benefit when teachers collaborate and share best practices with one another.
Good teachers shouldn’t battle for adequate compensation. Once ranked 21st in teacher pay in the late 1990s, North Carolina now ranks 46th nationally. Teachers work an average 11-hour day and already can be dismissed for just cause. Career status gives them due process if they are terminated, not a guaranteed job. Legislation taking away these basic rights and replacing them with annual contracts isn’t the right answer. Let’s improve the career status process but not by throwing our entire school system into disarray over false claims of teacher incompetency.
Attracting and keeping good teachers in our public schools would require we pay them as professionals, reward them for experience and advanced degrees, provide them with ongoing professional development and evaluate them fairly using a variety of tools, not just student test scores. It is critical that teachers have reasonable class sizes, manageable workloads, adequate classroom supplies and technology. These are common sense strategies and goals. These used to be funded priorities for North Carolina.
Our schools are not failing. But the real problems and challenges are growing. Our schools are severely underfunded and understaffed – compounded by the fact that over more than half of our N.C. students live in poverty.
Not only have our legislators misdiagnosed the problem, they also have underestimated the strong commitment that their constituents have for our teachers. A recent statewide poll shows North Carolinians united in their support of public school teachers.
Thankfully, N.C. residents overwhelmingly support teachers getting a pay increase for completing a master’s degree (83 percent). Moreover, 76 perecent of North Carolinians agree that public school teachers are paid too little, and 71 percent agree we cannot keep the best and most qualified teachers with the current pay scale.
North Carolina already loses too many teachers after the first three years of teaching, often to better paying jobs or less stressful working conditions. Now, we are facing a severe shortage of professionally trained and certified teachers as these new laws along with the budget cuts are driving more qualified teachers out of our public schools!
Instead of acknowledging the importance of great teachers and working to improve the profession, we see that our teachers have been undervalued, underpaid and discouraged at every turn. It’s no wonder some considered a walkout in protest.
The evidence is overwhelming in support of teachers. We must communicate our support to our elected representatives before it is too late. It’s time for parents, grandparents, business and civic leaders to speak and stand up for our teachers. The walkout might become a walk away. We cannot afford that outcome for our children.
Yevonne Brannon is chairman of Public Schools First NC.