North Carolina is having a hard time proving to federal education officials that the state can provide some of its most vulnerable students with access to high-quality teachers.
North Carolina is among only six states who have not yet won approval from the U.S. Department of Education for its plan to educate students under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The Education Department has a lot of questions before it continues to give federal education dollars to North Carolina, including how the state is dealing with inexperienced and ineffective teachers working at high-poverty schools.
In the state's third revised plan sent last week, the state Department of Public Instruction acknowledges that there's a problem with how teachers are distributed across the state. But DPI says there's only so much the state can do about the problem.
"Given that in NC hiring policies are the purview of the local boards of education, the state has limited policy options to address the disproportionate rates of inexperienced teachers in schools that serve high populations of minority student and/or EDS populations," the state says in the new plan.
The report says that DPI is committed to working with districts to develop policies and practices "that reduce these inequities between affluent and poor students and majority and minority students."
Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law Project at the liberal N.C. Justice Center, says the state is falling short of ensuring that students have a good teacher.
"The state can’t abdicate its responsibility to provide every student with a sound basic education," he said.
But Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the conservative John Locke Foundation, said all the state is trying to do is to satisfy the reviewers to get the plan approved.
"I don’t think we should take too much stock in state ESSA plans or the fact that North Carolina's plan has been revised three times," he said. "The fact is the most spectacular plan on paper will collapse if not properly implemented.”
North Carolina pays the base salaries for teachers, with most of the state's 115 school districts supplementing what's offered. The supplements vary widely, with districts such as Wake County offering more than rural districts.
State lawmakers have approved teacher pay raises the past several years, including an average 6.5 percent raise in the new budget. But the state is estimated to be 37th in the nation in average teacher pay.
Thousands of teachers marched in Raleigh on May 16 to demand higher teacher pay and more state spending on education.
The federal government is holding states accountable for how they educate students under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the No Child Left Behind program. The new law still requires states to administer standardized tests, but it gives them more flexibility to report other measures for holding schools accountable.
The state submitted its first plan in September but reviewers had many concerns, including how the plan dealt with equitable access to experienced teachers. A second version was submitted in February before the latest plan last week.
The new state plan includes more details about the experience and quality levels of the teachers at schools.
"Students in North Carolina schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged and minority student populations have less access to highly effective teaching than their peers in schools with lower percentages of EDS and minority student populations," DPI says in the report. "Additionally, students in these high-poverty, high-minority schools have a greater probability of receiving instruction from an inexperienced or out-of-field teacher than the students in schools with lower percentages of EDS and minority student populations. "
The report says the problem is exacerbated by experienced teachers leaving these high poverty and high minority schools to work in more affluent schools. They're replaced by inexperienced teachers.
The report says DPI is developing tools that school districts can use to try to "mitigate the debilitating effects of teacher mobility and attrition."
But Ellinwood of the N.C. Justice Center said that the state can and should do more to address the teacher gap. He said the state can explore options such as paying teachers more to work in high-poverty schools.
"If you don’t address the quality of teachers, you’re not going to see improvement in low performing schools," he said.
But Stoops of the Locke Foundation said the state's plan acknowledges the limited role it has in hiring and assigning teachers.
"Apart from financial incentives and collecting and reporting data, I don’t know that there’s a significant role for the state in ensuring equitable distribution of high quality teachers across the school districts," he said.