Forum looks at whether North Carolina teachers will have bleak or bright future

jstancill@newsobserver.comFebruary 11, 2014 

Editor's Note: This story incorrectly said that teacher Vivian Connell had left the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. She left the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to attend law school but is now employed with Chapel Hill-Carrboro as a teacher of English as a Second Language.

RALEIGH - North Carolina, known for its past leadership in education, will have to work hard to regain its edge and build a teaching profession that’s prepared for the challenges of a competitive economic world, experts said Tuesday at a forum that drew 1,300 people to Raleigh.

On its second day, the Emerging Issues Forum explored ideas about how to keep the best teachers, how to give them better professional opportunities and how to ensure quality teaching.

But first, participants heard a stinging assessment of changes in North Carolina education from author and educational historian Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, blasted recent laws enacted by North Carolina legislators that she said threaten public schools, including charter school expansion, private school vouchers and the elimination of teacher tenure and master’s pay for teachers. The state’s teachers, she said, are now being treated as low-level contract workers, not professionals.

“North Carolina stands today as a negative lesson to the nation about how to destroy public education and how to dismantle the teaching profession,” Ravitch said. “That may sound harsh; unfortunately, it’s true. ... The duly elected officials of this great state are destroying the very institution that made the state great and demoralizing the very people who are trusted every day to care for its children.”

After her talk, the crowd cheered and gave her a standing ovation.

Response to pay plan

Later Tuesday, a panel of lawmakers had varying views of the plan Gov. Pat McCrory had outlined Monday to raise the minimum pay for starting teachers and those with a few years’ experience. Under the plan, minimum pay for teachers would rise to $35,000 by 2015-16, putting North Carolina ahead of some Southern states, McCrory said.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said the pay proposal is just the first step.

“We’re planning on doing this huge raise for beginning teachers, I’m talking about the first seven or eight years,” he said. “We’re losing our best and brightest. We’re spending millions of dollars in our higher education system to educate these great students who are going to Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.”

Tillman said there will be other incentives and ways for local districts to chip in more for salary supplements.

But, he added, “Everybody will not get the same raises, probably from here on out. There will be a lot in there for excellence and achievement and moving your students ahead.”

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said of the pay proposal, “The devil is going to be in the details in terms of how fair this plan is and who it covers.”

The crowd also heard from six teachers who have left or are leaving North Carolina classrooms. Sharon Boxley left her teaching job to move to Maryland, where she said she could earn an additional $15,000 to $20,000 a year.

“I decided I needed to be paid my worth, and North Carolina couldn’t do that,” Boxley said.

Vivian Connell left her job in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools for law school and is now employed with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system as a teacher of English as a Second Language. She said she was discouraged by the constant testing and other mandates. “I was tired of not having a voice,” she said. “No one listens to teachers.”

Connell suggested each school board in the state designate two seats for teacher representatives.

Tennessee’s success

Participants at the forum also heard about an aggressive education agenda from a North Carolina neighbor.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, outlined a strategy that seems to have already shown success. Last year, Tennessee had the fastest improving results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a ranking that Haslam called “rare air for us.”

“We decided early on that we were going to make education a priority in Tennessee,” he said. “We knew that while money wasn’t the only answer, it had to be part of the answer.”

Among other states in the past three tough budget years, Tennessee had the fourth-highest increase in education spending as a percentage of its budget. The state also set about raising expectations and standards, Haslam said. It revamped teacher tenure but didn’t eliminate it, and it placed more emphasis on evaluating teacher performance.

Part of the process, Haslam said, was recognizing the gap between perception and reality on student achievement. Ninety-three percent of students had been designated proficient in tests, but 70 percent of community college students required remedial classes.

‘Best ... in the Southeast’

Haslam said he kept hearing from employers that they needed workers with a different depth of knowledge and talent. So he recently proposed a plan to provide free community college to Tennessee students, paid for by income from invested lottery proceeds.

“In Tennessee, we are committed to this idea that we’re going to be … the best state in the Southeast for high-quality jobs,” Haslam said. “It really does begin in kindergarten. It begins with raising standards and expectations all along the way.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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