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A popular teacher mentoring program is packaged in a controversial pay plan

Taylor Hedgepeth (left) and Casey Jackson (right) at Aycock Elementary, Henderson, NC
for WUNC
Taylor Hedgepeth (left) and her mentor Casey Jackson (right) at Aycock Elementary in Henderson, NC. Jackson has an "advanced teaching role" at Vance County Schools.

Third grade teacher Taylor Hedgepeth says the mentorship she's received at Aycock Elementary in Vance County Schools has made a world of difference in these first five years of her career.

“I feel blessed to have somebody in my corner and somebody supporting me, because I can tell you, if I hadn't my first couple of years, I don't know if I would've continued to teach,” Hedgepeth says.

All North Carolina schools assign first-year teachers a classroom teacher as a mentor. What's different at this school is that being a mentor isn’t an added duty, it’s a full-time job with higher pay.

Casey Jackson used to be a principal when she applied for this position to coach a team of six teachers.

“It's the best of both worlds,” Jackson says. “I get to not only work with teachers, but I also get to still work with students.”

Jackson helps plan lessons, works with students in small groups and even co-teaches alongside the teachers she mentors. Both Jackson and Hedgepeth have high praises for the program.

“It's been wonderful,” Jackson says, “I wish we could take this everywhere else.”

State policymakers are working to spread this model across North Carolina public schools. The program was started through a state-funded pilot project known as advanced teaching roles.

Education reform can be highly polarizing, but this is one proposal in North Carolina that's had support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers both supported pilot funding for school districts’ planning and start-up costs. There’s funding for advanced teaching roles in the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan, which was negotiated by Attorney General Josh Stein’s office and has been hailed by public school advocacy groups.

Republican State Superintendent Catherine Truitt now wants to scale up the program as one part of a teacher licensing plan that would create more positions like the one Casey Jackson has. The same plan is controversial for the way it would also overhaul teacher pay.

The North Carolina Association of Educators has criticized the plan and called it merit pay because of the way it completely restructures teachers’ salaries and licenses to be based on measures like state test scores and evaluations by principals. But NCAE’s Vice President Bryan Proffitt said in an email they support state funding for teachers to have access to advanced roles.

School administrators in the pilot program say they hope it will help keep teachers in the profession.

Casey Jackson (left) & Taylor Hedgepeth (right) at Aycock Elementary in Henderson, NC
Matt Ramey
for WUNC
As Taylor Hedgepeth reads from "Charlotte's Web," her mentor Casey Jackson jumps in with a question to check students’ reading comprehension.

School districts in pilot program struggle to fund it

Fueled by grants and a state-funded pilot program that covered planning costs, advanced teaching roles are now in more than 200 schools in 15 school districts across North Carolina.

Seth Brown co-directs the program at Pitt County Schools, which received grant funding to create a tiered system to train and support teachers throughout their careers. At the top of that pyramid are the advanced teaching roles.

“We started trying to figure out, why are the best teachers in Pitt County leaving the classroom?” Brown said.

Brown says many of the district’s most talented teachers move on to be administrators, but that limits their time working directly with students. One goal of the program is to give more students access to high-quality, experienced teachers in a landscape where they’re becoming more rare.

“How do we keep our best teachers in the classroom? We expand their influence and we expand their compensation,” Brown said. “We pay them what they're worth.”

The advanced teaching roles are expensive because the teachers who fill them tend to be more experienced, and they receive an additional stipend.

All the Pitt County schools that have these positions use federal Title I funds to help pay for them. That funding is only for high-poverty schools, and Brown says that makes it hard to spread the model. Even schools with that federal funding have to make trade-offs in their budgets to afford the positions.

“If I can make a magic wish it would be for the state to say these advanced roles are so impactful,” Brown said. “So for the districts that need them, our low-wealth districts, the schools especially that need them, why can't the state help supplement and fund these positions?”

Brown says the success of the program can be seen in the demand for it.

“We have, I think, five schools right now that would like another multi-classroom teacher in their buildings. So they see the impact, and they're like, ‘Seth, we’ve got to get more of these, how do we get more of these?’” Brown says.

Advanced teaching roles show promising results, but face challenges to expansion

Education researchers at the Friday Institute at NC State University were tasked with evaluating the advanced teaching roles pilot program.

The evaluations found that schools with advanced teaching roles tended to show improvement on state tests, but researchers haven’t determined if that’s due to this program. There is anecdotal evidence that it might improve teacher retention, but not hard data.

Courtesy of the Friday Institute at NC State University
Callie Womble Edwards is the Acting Director of Program Evaluation and Education Research at the Friday Institute at NC State University. She helped lead evaluations of the advanced teaching roles pilot program.

Callie Womble Edwards, directs program evaluations at the Friday Institute, says advanced teaching roles work very differently across districts. Edwards says it’s important for teachers and local administrators to have a say in how it operates, and for there to be ongoing training for teachers in advanced roles.

“It's not one size fits all,” Edwards said. “With scaling anything, I think the natural tendency is to say, ‘Okay, what worked in this district, and how can we make this work across the state?’ but I think there needs to be a lot of intentionality to local needs.”

Edwards cautions that any effort to scale it up needs to be thoughtful, deliberate and have buy-in from teachers. Right now, the licensing plan it's embedded in has garnered mostly criticism from teachers.

Then there’s the question of how to pay for it.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s office says it can't estimate how much the comprehensive plan — including teacher salary changes and the mentoring program — will cost, because it’s still under discussion. Based on past teacher raises, it could run into the hundreds of millions, or perhaps billions, of dollars.

Truitt says this plan is still a priority for her administration. However, the commission working on it has stalled its progress amid concerns that it doesn’t have the authority under state law to recommend such an overhaul.

It’s unclear whether the teacher licensing and pay plan will go to the General Assembly for consideration next session. Ultimately, Republican lawmakers leading budget negotiations will decide the final details and funding for any changes to teacher salary schedules.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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