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WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

The Year Of The Teacher

Jim Potter
Dave DeWitt

This is The Year of the Teacher, a documentary from North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC looking back at an extraordinary year in public education in the state.

Just before lunch, the kids in Jim Potter’s third-grade class are sitting at attention, engaged and enthusiastic. This isn’t his classroom – he’s doing his student teaching here at Lockhart Elementary in Wake County – but it sure seems like it. His energy is up, the kids are with him, and the minutes fly by.

This is what it should look like everywhere – a highly-trained, charismatic teacher clearly making connections with kids from all walks of life.

And it is happening, more than some would like you to believe. High-school graduation rates are at an all-time high in North Carolina, and National Association of Educational Progress – or NAEP - scores are higher than the national average.

Why then, do teachers feel under attack? After a year of turmoil in the profession, is North Carolina going to see a mass exodus of teachers?

Jim Potter is just beginning his teaching career in North Carolina. He’s a teacher the state should be doing everything to try to keep for as long as possible.

“I feel good because I’m here by choice,” he says. “If you want people who are going to be passionate about what they are doing, and people who are going to be good at what they are doing, you need to pay them accordingly.”

By any measure, North Carolina doesn’t pay its teachers accordingly. 46th in the nation in average teacher pay. 48th in beginning teacher pay.

So how did we get here? Do we value our teachers less than New York or Iowa or Georgia? Or is there something else going on?

How We Got Here: A Recent History Of Teaching and Public Education In North Carolina

Thirteen years after Brown versus Board of Education, Alice Battle was peering out the window of her second-floor classroom, watching as white and black students streamed into Chapel Hill High School – together, for the first time. Battle had previously attended and taught in only segregated Black schools - and she was more than a little nervous.

There had already been a riot a few days earlier, and tensions were high that more violence was coming.

“They threw rocks and the end of the high school was all glass and they broke out all of that glass,” Battle remembers. “I was just so fearful, because we just didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Integration was the defining moment for public education and the teaching profession in the South in the 20th century. When desegregation finally came, and Battle could finally see how unequal White and Black schools had been, she was shocked.

“When we integrated, oh, we had supplies,” she says. “We had books. We had workbooks. We had everything. I guess that they had been having all along, but we didn’t have it.”

North Carolina Teacher Project
Credit NC Museum of History
William Campbell on his first day integrating Raleigh City Schools.

North Carolina was not much different from other southern states then. More than half of all students dropped out. Poverty was pervasive. The Ku Klux Klan had more members in North Carolina than in any other state in the country.

But there was also a progressive streak, especially when it came to education. Governor Terry Sanford had increased taxes on food in the 1950s to raise teacher salaries. “Terry’s Tax” as it came to be known, nearly ended his political career.

By the early 1970s, improving education had become a bipartisan issue when first Democrat Bob Scott and then Republican Jim Holshouser served as Governor. Both pushed for higher teacher salaries and statewide kindergarten.

“If you are going to, as an individual, have a full life, education can just make so much difference,” Holshouser told UNC TV in 2008. “Not in terms of just your ability to make a living, but in terms of your ability to see all that life has to offer.”

Holshouser was helped by the Lieutenant Governor, a little-known young Democrat by the name of Jim Hunt, who shared a similar vision on education.

“When Governor Holshouser was elected there was a surplus in the state treasury,” Hunt recalls. “And I am told that a lot of people said ‘well, you’ve got some extra money, cut taxes. You don’t need it.’ And I think Governor Holshouser’s response was: ‘I want to raise teacher salaries and put in kindergartens. We need the money. In education.’”

Hunt would succeed Holshouser, and go on to become the longest-serving governor in state history – 16 years in all, from 1976 to 1984, and again from 1992 to 2000. And perhaps no governor in any state has ever had a more dramatic impact on public education and the profession of teaching.

“My lifetime commitment is to improve teaching and help teachers have a good life but to help the students learn,” says Hunt. “That’s what we’re really about. And if you do all those things than North Carolina will be highly successful. Our economy will grow. Our people will have a better life. And it’s all linked, primarily, more than anything else, to public schools and to teaching.”

To put this philosophy into practice, Hunt was a tireless deal-maker, making calls and twisting arms and hammering his message home constantly. Working with a democratic Legislature for his first two terms, Hunt passed an enormous slate of education reforms. Class size reduction. Teacher salary increases. An institute to train principals. Founding The North Carolina School of Science and Math.

But Hunt says his proudest accomplishment was putting teacher assistants in every primary classroom.

“I put most of them in way back in the 1970s and they have been invaluable,” he says.

Jim Hunt
Credit UNC Libraries
Gov. Jim Hunt.

The North Carolina Association of Educators played a key role in his campaigns. But a recession hit during his second term and tough decisions had to be made. Hunt froze teacher salaries, and the NCAE turned on him, organizing a protest outside the governor’s mansion.

“Well, that was the only time we had a little tension,” Hunt says with a chuckle. “We had to freeze salaries or cut employees. It was that simple. They knew that I had worked hard to raise teacher pay before that happened. Certainly we worked hard afterward.”

Throughout Hunt’s time in public office, the state was undergoing a dramatic demographic change. From 1970 to 2010, North Carolina nearly doubled in population. This put tremendous pressure on the state’s education system. For one, the universities could not produce enough teachers, so districts hired many from out-of-state.

Jayne Fleener arrived here in 1983 to become a math and computer science teacher at the old Durham High School. She’s now the dean of the College of Education at NC State.

“We were very fortunate to have a period of time across both parties where this state made a conscious decision that education was going to be an important part of pulling us out of being a poor, southern, tobacco state,” she says. “And I have worked in other southern states, and they never had that.”

Teacher salaries continued to increase during the tenure of Republican Governor Jim Martin. But when Hunt returned to the Governor’s mansion in 1992, the pace of education reform picked up again.

Hunt pushed a statewide Smart Start Pre-Kindergarten program, and focused even more on teacher salaries – finally increasing them to the national average, but also increasing accountability for teachers and schools – and testing for children.

The efforts gained national attention, even earning a mention in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union Address.

“All states and school districts must turn around their worst performing schools -- or shut them down,” Clinton said during the speech, drawing applause. “That's the policy established in North Carolina by Governor Jim Hunt. North Carolina made the biggest gains in test scores in the nation last year.”

Test scores and teacher salaries remained in the middle of the pack through the next decade. Pre-K programs expanded and graduation rates rose under both Governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue.

But political winds were changing, and as the 21st century progressed, more conservative Republicans were winning seats in the Legislature. Perdue froze teacher salaries when the recession hit in 2009, and the often bi-partisan effort to improve schools evaporated.

In 2012, Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger introduced a new era of education reforms.

“Higher taxes and more spending is not a solution to the problems that we have in our public schools,” he said during a press conference then. “Until we get the policy right, I don’t think the taxpayers of this state are prepared or should be asked to put more money into the public schools.”

Berger passed almost all of his sweeping education reforms in 2013. Among other things, it ended the Teaching Fellows program, and initially ended tenure and salary increases for teachers who earn master’s degrees.

“They did it all at once,” says Terry Stoops, the director of education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation. “They don’t get style points for it, but the number of reforms that were passed received some awe from some of my colleagues in other states who said ‘I can’t believe North Carolina was able to do all that in one year.’ And in particular, the elimination of the master’s degree supplement.”

Teachers fought back, and Governor Pat McCrory responded with a comprehensive plan to revamp leadership opportunities for teachers, significantly increase pay for those early in their careers, and give all teachers a smaller raise.

“So I’m pleased to announce, my budget, which I am presenting to the legislature next week, we’re recommending that teachers can expect to see an average raise of two percent,” McCrory announced earlier this year. “We’d like to do more, but that’s a start.”

But McCrory’s plans barely made it to the Legislature’s front door. The State Senate and House spent most of the short session this year fighting over how much to increase teacher pay.

As they bickered inside the Legislature, teachers protested outside.

“We feel betrayed by the politicians that this is their duty to support public education, and they’re not doing it,” says Bill Notarnicola, a teacher for 27 years at Enloe High School in Raleigh, during a Moral Monday protest in June.

Other teachers went even further: Bryan Proffitt, a teacher at Hillside High School in Durham, led a group of teachers and public-school supporters to Phil Berger’s front door.

Phil Berger
Credit Dave DeWitt
Senator Phil Berger at an impromptu meeting with teachers and public education supporters earlier this summer.

Senator Berger wasn’t in his office and the teachers sat down and waited to get arrested. A little while later, to their surprise, Berger appeared and agreed to meet with them.

Berger and the teachers didn’t come to any agreements then – and it took the Republican-controlled Legislature nearly two more months to come to its own compromise on an average 7-percent raise for teachers. The budget doesn’t force teachers to choose between a raise and tenure, but may lead to cutting some teacher assistants.

It was a strange end to a long year for teachers – a period when respect for them and for the teaching profession became a central debate. It was a year when many teachers did something they never would have imagined – they took to the streets to protest, fighting the many changes they feel belittled their jobs, and undermined their efforts in the classroom.

Protesting, Teacher Style

So what turns a North Carolina teacher into a protestor? Is it just low pay? A feeling of disrespect?

For most of the teachers I spoke with this year, it seemed to boil down to this: they love teaching, they love kids, and they want to do right by them, and it frustrated them to their core that they felt forced into making choices they felt were not in those kids’ best interests. That includes their own personal decision to either stay in teaching or to leave and make more money.

That certainly described Jennifer Spivey, a high-school science teacher from Columbus County.

“Why should I stay in North Carolina?” she said last fall. “North Carolina wants to be competitive in the education market nationally, but they’re not being competitive in attracting the people they need to attract. And it’s really hard to stay, it’s no wonder there are other states moving ahead of us. Because we’re just not keeping up with the times. Happy teachers make happy classrooms.”

But low pay was just one of the issues for teachers. Last summer, the General Assembly eliminated tenure, ended salary supplements for teachers with master’s degrees, and cut teacher assistants. Even Republican Rob Bryan, a member of the House Education Committee, wondered if it wasn’t too much…

“Any time you sort of put a stick you want to put a counter carrot out in front,” he says. “And I think there was some sense that some people felt like, gee, there was a stick this year – no more tenure – but there wasn’t much of a carrot.”

By early November of last year, teachers weren’t much interested in hearing about any carrots. They wrote newspaper op-eds, they took to Facebook, and they organized rallies before a school day in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Durham.


Teachers demonstrate Monday morning outside Riverside High School in Durham
Credit Dave DeWitt
Teachers protesting outside of Riverside High School in Durham.

Roger Schultz is a teacher. For 20 years, he has taught severely handicapped students. On a cool, sunny day last November, he was standing outside Riverside High School, doing what he normally does – greeting every bleary-eyed, head-phone-wearing student who comes off the bus.

Usually the students nod or ignore him, but today is a little different. In his hands, Schultz is holding a hand-written sign. And what it says catches the students’ attention.

He reads it aloud: “‘Stop pushing teachers off the plank.’ It seems so much of what the Legislature is doing is making our job difficult.”

Behind Schultz dozens of other teachers are wearing red, and some are also carrying signs. As cars pull up to let students out, they smile and begin to chant “Spread the Red.”

There’s another large group of teachers out by the road. Some have been educators for decades, while others are just starting out.

“The morale is low. Teachers are fed up,” says Monica Skipwith. She’s in her second year teaching English and yearbook. “It’s terrible. And considering this is a profession that I love and I want to be in for the long haul I want to make sure that my job is secure and make sure that I am able to do my job by teaching students, having the materials that I need, and having the money that I need to survive.”

Skipwith says she is here with her colleagues because the North Carolina Legislature did not fund education adequately. That includes no money for textbooks, no teacher raises, eliminating tenure, enacting a voucher program for private schools, and ending salary supplements for teachers who earn a master’s degree.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who are worked up.

“If someone has to put up with me for seven hours a day I feel like they should get paid well for it,” says Hunter Heilman, a senior at Riverside High School. And while he feels teacher pay should rank higher than 46th in the country, he’s even more concerned with North Carolina’s other ranking: 45th in per-pupil spending. “My calculus textbook is falling apart. It’s literally falling apart at the spine. Which I think is ridiculous enough that we can’t get funding enough for even the basic needs like that.”

A student holds a sign in support of teachers outside a demonstration at Durham's EK Powe Elementary School.
Credit Dave DeWitt
A child supporting her teachers outside of EK Powe Elementary School in Durham.

At E.K. Powe Elementary, not too far away, the “walk-in” event has a much more overtly political feel – complete with careful staging, a malfunctioning P-A system and TV cameras. There are still teachers, parents, and students here, but there are also elected officials. All are Democrats, like State Senator Mike Woodard, who stands on the front steps of the neoclassical revival style school building as he blasts his political opponents.

“Our public schools have never been under greater attack,” Woolard says, to applause. “Our colleagues in the General Assembly majorities really started defunding public education. And it has serious repercussions that are going to last for generations if we can’t turn the tide very quickly.”

In a written statement that day, Senate leader Phil Berger denounced the walk-ins. He said he appreciates the “overwhelming majority” of teachers but called the protests “bully tactics.” He also said schools were not the place for politics and kids should not be used as “pawns.” 

Governor Pat McCrory also debates the notion that school funding has been cut. He did so in a speech last August to the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce: “At $7.8 billion this is the largest K-thru-12 budget in North Carolina history.”

That assessment did not take into account inflation or the 34,000 additional students that have enrolled in the past five years.

The more important numbers for the future of public education are these: 80% of those surveyed in an Elon University poll last year believed North Carolina teachers are underpaid.

Just two percent thought they were overpaid.

Training Teachers

While many current teachers are concerned with how changes in their profession affect their careers, they also worry about what it will mean for future colleagues.

Teachers enter North Carolina classrooms one of three ways: they are educated in the state’s universities, they come from out-of-state, or they enter through an alternative entry program.

And like everything else in education, how North Carolina trains teachers is going through some significant changes.

Schools Of Ed

On this day last May, exams are looming for the freshmen students in ED 100, the introductory class in NC State’s School of Education. But instead of looking stressed or worried, the first-year education majors have a spring in their step as they settle into the lecture hall on this late afternoon.

Maybe it’s because most know exactly why they are here: to become a teacher.

NC Teacher Project
Credit Dave DeWitt
Students in Ed100 at NC State.

“I have had a lot of people try to talk me out of it,” says Becka Townsend, a freshman from Apex. “I was debating between engineering and education for a long time because it’s one of those things where a lot of those teachers, if you want to teach at the high school level, have the intelligence, as you would say, to do a profession where they might pay more. But I just felt like this is where I was being led and I really have the heart to work with kids, especially.”

Of all the pathways to becoming a licensed teacher in North Carolina, the UNC system schools produce the most – about one-third. It’s also arguably the most important sector. According to research out of UNC-Chapel Hill (pdf), teachers trained in UNC system schools have better student performance outcomes and they stay longer in their careers. In other words: they are the backbone of the profession in the state.

“The goal is to actually have career educators who are committed for a lifetime,” says Fleener, the dean of the school of education at NC State. “It saddens me to think teachers like my mother, who was a phenomenal teacher, and spent her career being a teacher in the community and everyone would know her and she would go out to eat and all the students and former students would come up to see her, I would hate to see that go away.”

Schools of Education have changed over the years. Instead of the old model of three-and-a-half-years-in-lecture-halls and then a semester of student teaching, undergraduate students do a mix of content and methods classes, project work, extensive and varied class placements, and, finally, mentored student teaching. It’s by far the most comprehensive – and longest – path to becoming a teacher.

But some say it’s not always the best path. The National Council On Teacher Quality is an advocacy organization based in Washington. It released a report earlier this year that blasted university-based programs as lacking rigor.

It singled out four schools in North Carolina as being among the worst in the country: Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Greensboro College, and Catawba College.

He says there’s a great deal of variation in the quality of North Carolina’s teacher education programs.

“Some of it is a function of the students that are admitted,” says Stoops, from the John Locke Foundation. “They’re not as selective with their initial enrollments and those kids end up in the education schools and getting education degrees. So I think a lot of it has to do with entry and making sure those standards are high. I think that’s one way to improve the quality of the teacher workforce.”

While some criticize schools of education for not attracting high-caliber students, others criticize them for not producing enough teachers.

That puts the programs in a squeeze. Add in factors like Baby Boomers retiring and the perception that some hold the teaching profession in low regard and it adds up to a potential problem.

“We know that our teacher preparation programs across the state have told us they have fewer people enrolling,” says June Atkinson, the State Superintendent of Schools. “If we do not raise teacher salaries, the masters degree payment, and we do not show we value our teacher than I am worried about the supply of quality teachers to teach our young people.

Two years ago, 122 freshmen enrolled in NC State’s School of Education. Last year, it was 97.

“I’m undaunted,” says freshman Randi Gibbs, from Youngsville. “I’ve definitely considered changing my major, but I think in the end I will probably stay in education. I know this is where I am meant to be.”

But Gibbs does admit that all the talk around the future of her chosen profession has affected her thoughts on her options. Instead of staying in state, she says she may look at teaching overseas after graduation.

Career Transition

Marci Harvey never dreamed of being a teacher. She was a scientist, a recent graduate of the PhD program at the University of South Carolina, when she got married and moved to the Triad – and found herself looking for a job.

“It was kind of a fluke,” she says. “I saw an ad in the paper, it said ‘chemistry teacher needed, must have a license or be able to get one.’ And I thought, since I’ve got a degree in chemistry I should be able to get a license.”

She interviewed and got the job, in the middle of the quarter. That was 18 years ago. Today, Harvey teaches chemistry at West Forsyth High School.

Her story is not uncommon. Lateral and alternative entry teachers make up about one-third of North Carolina’s workforce.

It works like this: let’s say someone has a computer science degree and ten years experience in RTP. Assuming she or he has a previous qualifying score on a test like the SAT or ACT, all someone needs is a school district willing to hire them.

Once they’re hired, it’s a half-dozen or so education classes taken at night or online through a university-based program or a Regional Alternative Licensing Center. Total cost is usually a few thousand dollars, but some programs have scholarships available.

One of those is NC STEP. It’s run by North Carolina New Schools and it’s designed to get professionals with science backgrounds into the classroom.

“They come in more mature, more ready to give back to students,” says NC STEP director Stacy Costello. “They really have a need to impact education and to promote their field, which is a good combination for them. So they have a different perspective coming in, and they bring that to the classrooms in which they teach.”

NC STEP requires its teachers to commit to three years in a North Carolina classroom after getting certified. Other lateral entry programs don’t have that same requirement.

And there are literally dozens, with names like NC TEACH and the North Carolina Teacher Corps.

“There are over 50 ways to get a teacher license in our state right now,” says Eric Guckian, the Governor’s Senior Education adviser. “And I have concerns about the quality of all of them. Let’s take the best in class and let’s try to attract the folks who are the most committed, the most effective, the most high-performing, into the profession.”

To this point, lateral entry teachers as a group are not the most effective or high-performing. According to research out of UNC-Chapel Hill, lateral entry teachers rank below average in student performance. And only about 40 percent stay on the job more than five years.

Michael Maher is the Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation at NC State. He says many lateral entry teachers come into teaching with a certain attitude: “They come in thinking ‘I was an expert in my field,’ and they are going in to teach mathematics, and they know math inside and out and they will readily admit, but I’m not quite sure how this teaching thing works.”

And teaching works differently than it did when they may last have been in school.

“I think the expectations are higher,” says Harvey, the chemistry teacher from West Forsyth. “Instead of just being an educator, a lot of times we’re expected to be a mother or a father, a social worker, a grief counselor. You name it.”

In 2013, turnover among all teachers rose by about two percent, with nearly 15 percent of the workforce leaving, according to numbers released by the Department of Public Instruction.

That will put even more pressure on lateral entry programs to ramp up teacher production.

But at least one alternative program is growing in North Carolina. Teach For America has a strong track record of attracting high-achieving college students into the teaching profession. But TFA corps members and alumni make up only about one percent of the state’s teaching force.

Despite it’s small size, it’s one of the most polarizing organizations in all of public education.

Making A Difference, But For How Long?

Ethan Tillman student and teacher
Credit Dave DeWitt
Ethan Tillman lets one of his sixth-grade students in Kinston try on his college graduation robe.

Teaching may be in Ethan Tillman’s blood – his mother is a teacher in Charlotte - but in college at the University of South Carolina, he dreamed of being a television reporter.

A few months out of college, he couldn’t be much further away from that career path.

“I knew that middle school was going to be tough,” Tillman says. “I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could have prepared me for how tough being a middle school teacher actually is.”

It’s especially tough at Rochelle Middle School in Kinston, where many of the students come from low-income families. But that’s why Tillman’s here, teaching Language Arts to sixth graders.

Teach For America puts high-achieving recent college graduates in hard-to-staff schools. For many years, TFA has had two branches in North Carolina: in the eastern part of the state and another in Charlotte. Since the early 1990s, TFA has placed nearly 1,600 teachers in the state, instructing tens of thousands of students.

“Over the last 20-plus years we have been a sustained pipeline of excellent teachers for school districts that struggle to recruit incredible teachers into their classrooms,” says Robyn Fehrman, the director of T-F-A for eastern North Carolina. “And I think because of that sustained pipeline, we have helped ensure that kids in rural eastern North Carolina have an excellent teacher where otherwise they might not.”

Teach For America has also risen to become the top single employer for graduates at UNC-Chapel Hill and Elon University.

But as it’s grown, TFA has come under strong criticism from teachers’ groups, unions, and those in teacher education. Among other things, they say a six-week seminar is not sufficient to train teachers.

Advocate and author Diane Ravitch summed up the criticism in a speech at Duke in 2011.

“Teach For America has sucked all the air out of any discussion of changing the profession,” Ravitch said. “Over the past decade it’s raised $500 million. Well, if we took the same amount of energy and focused on how we raise the standards of the teaching profession, we might be much farther along than we are today. Instead, we’re lowering standards.”

According to a recent teacher effectiveness study out of UNC-Chapel Hill, TFA teachers were the most effective early-career teachers, when measuring student achievement on test scores - placing higher than teachers coming out of the University system or lateral entry.

But fewer than ten percent of TFA teachers were still in public schools after five years. And it’s at that point - five years in – that research shows teachers enter their most-effective period.

“There’s this churn that we don’t really talk about, that can’t be good for communities and children, the fact that every year or every two years I’ve got a whole new corps of folks coming into my school,” says Maher, from NC State.

Many superintendents and principals in the partner school districts almost universally say they can’t do without Teach For America corps members.

Ryan Hurley is one of them. He also happens to be one of the few Teach For America corps members who beat the odds. He started as a teacher in Warren County in 2006 - and he’s still there, now as a principal at Warren Early College High School. He says it took about five years before he felt fully accepted in the community.

“People began to forget that I was a Teach For America corps member at all,” Hurley says. “There was a lot of pride I took in that. Any sense of standoffishness that people had towards me or keeping me at arm’s length because they didn’t know how long I was going to stay there had disappeared.”

And now that Hurley’s hiring teachers in a rural, high-poverty school, he has a different perspective on what TFA offers.

“Those, I think, who still continue to lash out at TFA need to take a strong look at where the education graduates from NC State and UNC Chapel Hill are going to teach,” he says. “Because by and large they are not beating down our doors to come and teach.”

On one of the last days before a holiday break, Tillman – the first-year TFA teacher in Kinston - is wrapping up his class by asking his students to write a “vision statement.” As part of the activity, he’s calling students one-by-one to the front of the room and draping his own college graduation robe on their shoulders. When it’s on, he takes their picture on his phone.

“What I want to do for them is to let them know to dream big and to always have those dreams and then to realize what role school plays in those dreams and how they have to further their education if they want to get to where they want to be in life.”

Tillman isn’t sure he’ll stay in Kinston once his two-year commitment is up, or if he’ll even stay in education.

But Teach For America isn’t going anywhere. The organization has a new $12-million contract with the state to expand its operations, thanks, in part, to its growing political influence.

Teaching To The Test(s)?

Credit Dave DeWitt
The "man" trying to steal money from kids in Dr. Elrod's class.

In the back corner of Stephen Elrod’s third-grade classroom, a man is lurking who wants to take the children’s money. He’s not a real man, and it’s not real money. It’s a large cartoon drawing of a maniacal character clutching fistfuls of dollars. A plastic bin is attached to the wall below the picture, filled with play money.

“Every time we take a test like Case 21 or EOG we either give him money or we keep our money,” explains Joanne, a third-grader. “And, if we don’t make our goal, we have to give him some money, and if we do make our goal, we get to keep our money.”

Third grade is the first year students take end-of-grade tests. And this past school year was also the first year of Read To Achieve, a state-mandated program that adds another battery of tests to their daily school lives.

In Wake County and other large districts, 36 mini-tests were being administered to third graders between January and the EOG test. That’s caused a lot of anxiety for parents and educators. But here in what everyone calls “Dr. E’s class” at Lockhart Elementary in Knightdale, there’s no sense of panic.

“Montez, are you stressed about it?” Dr. Elrod asks.

“I don’t know,” he says, to giggles from around the room. “Not since I’ve been taking CASE 21… Like kind of, but not really.”

The kids’ low level of stress can be attributed to Dr. Elrod’s 30-plus years in education; his patient, positive demeanor; and the way he’s tried to make a game of it. And the frequency of the tests, instead of causing stress, actually helps relieve it.

“I mean, it’s such a routine,” Dr. Elrod explains. “And they take the test, they find their score immediately so they know. I wish they would internalize it, but it’s ‘oh, I passed or I didn’t. Next Day: Oh, I passed or I didn’t.’ But the teacher gets good feedback, so it kind of lays out a little plan for us on how to help them, so when the EOG does come, they’re well-prepared.”

Reducing the number of tests has been one of the few consistent planks on Governor Pat McCrory’s education platform. Over the past year, he’s mentioned it many times.

Gov. Pat McCrory stands at a podium and speaks to the Emerging Issues Forum on Monday.
Credit Dave DeWitt
Gov. Pat McCrory speaks at the Emerging Issues Forum earlier this year.

“We need to have testing relief for our teachers, our students, and their families,” he told the audience at the Emerging Issues Forum earlier this year. “There are too many tests right now for teachers in North Carolina.”

McCrory is hardly alone in his opinion. Other Republicans agree with him, as do many Democrats, education policy experts, advocates, and parents.

But that didn’t stop Read to Achieve from becoming law two years ago, and adding to the testing load. Advocates for the program say it has a clear, simple goal: to make sure students leave third grade being able to read.

“Because what we’ve seen is those kids who don’t know how to read by the end of the third grade are all too often those kids that end up dropping out of school,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told UNC TV earlier this year. “So I think we’ve got a moral obligation as legislators, as school administrators, as parents, to make sure our kids are able to read.”

Berger, the architect of the program, says much of the anxiety has come from poor implementation of Read to Achieve. But on the ground at Lockhart Elementary, it’s been a team effort to take a new, loosely defined program with strict mandates, and make it work.

“Teachers are learning more and more at looking at the good of the Read To Achieve Law, and interweaving it into their daily lessons,” says Daniel Zoller, Lockhart’s principal. “But again it goes back to you’re a third-grade team. If you third-grade team is a well-oiled machine, they’re going to do well. If they’re not, it’s going to be tough.”

Lockhart is a year-round school, and held its first Read to Achieve camp during the last intersession between third-and-fourth quarters. The teachers here sent “invitations” to some of the kids who were struggling, and made the camp sound fun and exciting.

The state spent about $20 million to fund the camps, or about $10,000 per elementary school. Many educators say it isn’t enough.

“I had a couple parents say, ‘I want my child to go to reading camp, but before and after care is not there,’” says Zoller. “So what we did was pulled some funds together just to provide before-and-after care for four or five kids. We did it because it was the right thing to do.”

For teachers, it’s one more moving target to try to hit. Two years ago, Common Core was implemented. This summer, the Legislature decided to develop new state-specific standards.

The Legislature also decided to leave Read To Achieve in place, although it shortened the length of the summer reading camps.

Testing Teachers

Remember fifth grade? Well, whatever comes to your mind is not anything close to what it’s like now.

Certainly not in Nick Taylor’s fifth-grade class at Lake Myra Elementary School in eastern Wake County. Taylor is standing in the middle of the room, his booming voice echoing off the cinder-block walls as he directs groups of students.

“Brendan, Deja, grab the second laptop, website’s already minimized! Open it up, you got it. Brian, Shawn, grab an Ipad, open Safari, the website’s there, do it up…”

Kids move quickly to execute the benevolent commands, pulling their desks together in small groups, comparing and contrasting two versions of The Three Little Pigs. Taylor is a little like a benevolent Big Bad Wolf himself, running around, energetic, and somewhat out of breath…

“Yeah, he’s going to push it in. So it’s kind of like blowing it down. He’s just saying it differently, he’s going to blow the front door in, so the walls go in with the rest of the house.”

Unnoticed in one corner of the room, Principal Jim Argent looks on closely. Three times a year he sits in this classroom, formally evaluating Mr. Taylor. A couple times a week, he strolls through informally. He calls those stops drive-bys.

Later, in his office, Argent explains why he likes what he sees.

“You know, that was not a 1970s schoolhouse,” he says. “He put the kids in collaborative teams very efficiently. He didn’t get stuck on one pair of kids, a lot of times you can get focused on ‘I got to help these kids.’ He was all over the room helping and he was moving the flow and the activities of all the kids…”

Argent’s praise goes on for a while, but even more extensive is the lengthy written evaluation he must complete for each of his fifty or-so teachers. He evaluates his younger teachers three times a year – they are also evaluated once by a peer. Experienced teachers are evaluated once a year.

Argent has been assessing teachers a long time, and believes the process is vital if teachers are to improve.

“All teachers deserve the opportunity to grow,” he says. “All human beings in my philosophy are good relative to what they can become. Mr Taylor is an excellent teacher, but based on today’s lesson, he should be even more excellent a year from now.”

NC Teacher Evaluation
Credit Dave DeWitt
The "Rubric For Evaluating North Carolina Teachers.”

The state’s official “Rubric For Evaluating North Carolina Teachers” is quite the tree-killer of a document, containing 214 check-boxes, dozens of lines for comments, and often includes examples of lesson plans and student work.

The evaluation is broken up into five Standards: leadership, learning environment, content knowledge, learning facilitation, and reflection on the practice.

It is an extensive process that can take about four hours per teacher per evaluation. And even then, it can sometimes be lacking.

“As detailed and as comprehensive as this tool is, it still doesn’t capture everything that’s about good quality teaching and it certainly doesn’t capture how complicated it is for a teacher to create and maintain a learning environment in which all students can be successful,” says Jim Key, a former assistant superintendent in the Durham Public Schools who has evaluated teachers as a principal at the elementary, middle, and high-school levels.

At the end of the evaluation process, teachers are graded and placed into one of five categories, from “Not Demonstrated” to “Distinguished.” How many teachers earn each distinction in each school and in each district is now published online.

This may sound daunting, but most teachers not only value the process but find it vital to their professional growth.

Karyn Dickerson is an English teacher at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. Early on in her career, she got simple feedback from her evaluators, including this piece of advice: “Just making sure I called on all the students in the class. Sometimes the more vocal personalities tend to capture all the attention. And I think having another observer in your class, you realize you have not been as equitable as you thought you were. It’s nice to have that other pair of eyes in the room.”

Dickerson was last year’s North Carolina Teacher of the Year. As you might expect, her evaluations were stellar. But not every one goes as well. If poor evaluations accumulate, principals will use them as a way to encourage bad teachers to leave the profession, a process called “counseling out.”

“Because, let’s face it, if you’re the teacher and every day is a grind, and you’re not enjoying the students and the students aren’t enjoying you, trust me, I don’t care if its kindergarten or twelfth grade, typically the teacher knows,” says Key. “And more often than not, the principal and the teacher are able to come to an understanding.”

Key and many administrators are in favor of teachers having due process, often called tenure. They say it protects against personality and philosophical clashes between principals and teachers that can lead to unfair dismissals. The Legislature eliminated tenure last year, but a Wake Superior Judge reinstated it, pending a lawsuit.

Not all administrators agree with Key.

“It’s taken me, in my current school, four years to weed certain folks out that should not be in the business, because my hands have been tied,” says Kim Robertson. She is the principal at Cashwell Elementary in Cumberland County and told a Legislative Committee that she needs flexibility to turn around her high-needs school.

An analysis of the teacher effectiveness data at Robertson’s Cumberland County school shows how she has used evaluations to do the weeding out.

Since 2010, Robertson rated about one-third of her teachers as either developing or proficient, two of the three lowest categories. She placed very few teachers – never more than ten percent – into the highest category: “distinguished.”

Compare that to Principal Argent, in Wake County. He rated one-quarter to one-third of his teachers as distinguished, and a much lower percentage in the lesser categories.

Both are award-winning principals, but clearly have very different philosophies on how to evaluate their teachers.

And Robertson, in Cumberland County, differs in another way from many of her colleagues: she likes the idea of merit pay, and using poor evaluations to dismiss teachers.

“I’m not struggling with it because I am pleased that my best teachers will be compensated for being the best teachers,” she says. “Again, it’s based on the teacher evaluation tool. You can’t deny that.”

But it is a tool that can be easily manipulated by administrators. Hard numbers – like student test scores – are less subjective, but no less controversial, especially when they are applied to the process of determining and paying the best teachers.

That’s the basis for the newest addition to teacher evaluations in North Carolina. It’s called Standard Six, and it uses a complicated, proprietary statistics model called EVAAS to calculate a teacher’s impact on student test scores.

North Carolina pays SAS Institute in Cary about $3 million a year to use EVAAS across the state. It takes student test scores, runs them through EVAAS and comes up with a value-added score for each teacher.

If that value-added score shows that the students in a teacher’s class are testing higher than predicted, it’s a positive score. If not, it’s a negative score.

And that score now goes into every teacher evaluation.

“I do have some mixed feelings about it,” says Dickerson, the former North Carolina Teacher of the Year. “Just seeing how that EVAAS data can go up and down depending on the students you get each year, based on the assessments.”

Many teachers agree, and so do a number of principals, that using a value-added score to determine teacher effectiveness puts too much of an emphasis on testing. But many policy-makers at the federal and state level are embracing the idea, making strange bedfellows of people like President Barack Obama, and one of the state’s leading Republican lawmakers and education policy gurus, Senator Jerry Tillman.

“Well I do think that paying the best teachers and the worst teachers all the same is a thing that will phase out,” says Tillman. “I do think that day is coming to an end and it’s probably not very far away. Maybe a year. 

The Future Of Teaching

Jim Potter is setting up an experiment for his fifth-grade students to learn how clouds form. As he momentarily steps out of the room to get supplies, his students are straining, raising and waving their arms to come up to me, one by one, to tell me what they like about their teacher.

“My name is Jazzeer, and I like Mr. Potter because he’s cool beans.”

“My name is Eva, and I like Mr. Potter because he listens to us.”

“My name is Sindey and I like Mr. Potter because he’s animated.”

“My name is Javier and I like Mr. Potter because he makes learning fun.”0

“My name is Paul and I like Mr Potter because he’s the first teacher who actually believed in me.”

Teachers protesting
Credit Dave DeWitt
Will teachers continue to protest?

Potter, if you remember, is the very first teacher we heard from, the one who was finishing his student teaching and on the cusp of a long career.

In December, Potter finished his student teaching, and his principal quickly hired him to fill-in for a fifth-grade teacher who retired mid-year.

Even with the class and grade change, Potter’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. But the money is very tight for a young teacher, especially one with a wife, daughter, and another one on the way. So he’s been working a second job as a test administrator at a Pearson Professional Training Center. Every Saturday, he helps other teachers prepare to take licensure tests for other states.

And he’s been very busy.

“The number of people coming to us, teachers here in North Carolina, to take the test to get certified to teach in another state, is increasing drastically lately,” he says.

Back in April, Wake County Schools announced that mid-year teacher turnover was at an all-time high.

That, and political pressure in an election year, may be reasons the Legislature passed a significant raise for teachers – seven percent, on average; much higher for teachers early in their career, but much lower for more experienced teachers.

Soon, school will start up again for most of the state’s 1.5 million students. A teacher will be in front of them. But will it be the best teacher available? “A highly-effective educator” to use education jargon?

Or will the best and brightest, in a similar situation as Jim Potter, already be gone? Many teachers feel worn down and disrespected by all that’s happened in the past year. And many, like Potter, may still be looking to continue their careers outside North Carolina.

“If there are better opportunities elsewhere, what’s the incentive to stay?” Potter says.

“The Year Of The Teacher” is part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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