NC teachers would prove they are effective educators under proposed licensure program

North Carolina's teacher licensure proposal would significantly increase teacher pay and create more teacher leadership positions -- moves aimed at enticing more teachers into the ranks and stemming an ongoing exodus of educators. But some teachers are skeptical.

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Emily Walkenhorst
, WRAL education reporter

North Carolina’s proposed new teacher licensure system would be a pioneering experiment in deciding whether someone can be a teacher based on student growth.

If approved, North Carolina would join just two other states — Maryland and Louisiana — in requiring its 100,000 teachers to prove they are effective teachers to receive a full license and to renew the license, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The effort would also significantly increase teacher pay and create more teacher leadership positions — moves aimed at enticing more teachers into the ranks and stemming an ongoing exodus of educators.

A state committee on teacher standards is expected to vote as soon as Thursday on whether to recommend the model to the State Board of Education. Such a recommendation won’t be without critics.

Many teachers say it’ll take more than just pay and a lowering of professional barriers to reverse the stream of departures. They say the profession is struggling because of reduced support — in pay and professional development opportunities — and increased challenges such as mounting paperwork, high-stakes testing, behavioral issues, diminished administrative support and increased political scrutiny on the state’s educational system.

Classrooms without a permanent, fully-licensed teacher are leaving “a revolving door of unqualified teachers that are in front of the students,” said Justin Parmenter, a middle school teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools who has become one of the most vocal opponents of the licensure proposal. “We know what the impact is if we don't do something serious to address the pipeline. … But it's going to take an approach that's fair to teachers, that compensates teachers fairly and also treats them fairly.”

Feedback from teachers in rural or smaller districts has been positive on the potential pay raise, said Julie Pittman, assistant superintendent for educator engagement at the Department of Public Instruction, which is pushing the changes. “This could create some generational change for their families,” she said.

Currently, to obtain a full license, North Carolina teachers are required to complete an educator preparation program and pass a licensure exam. To renew it, they must obtain 80 hours of continuing education credits every five years. Teachers who don’t have education degrees can obtain “residency” licenses to teach on an emergency basis until they complete the testing and preparation requirements. Teacher pay, set by state budgets, is determined by years of service, rather than licensure level.

The proposed licensure model would require teachers to prove they have been effective educators for three of the past five years to obtain a full professional license. They would then need to renew it every five years. The state would still require continuing education. New teachers would still need to pass the licensure exam and complete a preparation program, such as at a university. Pay would still mostly be determined by years of service, but teachers who don’t meet licensure renewal requirements would not receive raises until they do.

Opposition to the proposal is mostly hung up on one key issue: how teachers’ effectiveness is measured.

Under the proposal, the 60% of teachers whose students don’t take standardized tests would use either a combination of observations and surveys — not yet selected — or another, yet-to-be-selected “qualitative or quantitative” review.

For the 40% of teachers whose students take standardized tests, North Carolina would use “value-added modeling” to decide whether a teacher is effective. Value-added models are algorithms that take standardized testing data to determine whether a student is worse, the same or better off because they had a certain teacher.

North Carolina uses an algorithm developed by Cary-based SAS Institute. Value-added modeling’s use has come under scrutiny from people arguing the calculations aren’t transparent or that the data are too volatile at the classroom level — because classrooms may only have 20 students — to be reliable measurements of how well a teacher really performed.

A push for change

North Carolina’s proposal is representative of pushes across the nation in the past two decades to increase educator accountability. Extensive federal education laws have heightened the stakes of student test scores. Politicians, policy groups and foundations — some backed by the nation’s wealthiest business leaders — have pushed for sweeping school reforms.

“There is an assumption here that we have some kind of outcome that we care about that we are at least currently not tracking very well,” said Michael Hansen, senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. That’s where the push for change comes from, he said, to connect “compensation or structure to what we actually care about.”

Enthusiasm for value-added models has waned, said Audrey Beardsley, an education professor at Arizona State University who founded a blog focused on teacher evaluation.

Federal regulation changes in 2016 gave states more authority over teacher evaluations. Many have since dropped their emphasis on value-added models, Beardsley said. Not long before those changes, teachers had filed more than a dozen lawsuits claiming their constitutional rights were violated when states or school systems used the sometimes opaque algorithms to make employment decisions.

Beardsley, who opposes value-added models, said she was surprised to hear about North Carolina’s licensure proposal, which would “have the highest stakes consequences attached to value output out of any state.”

Still, some of the evaluation methods haven’t been fleshed out.

If the licensure proposal were approved, public panels would deliberate on the suggested implementation process for the model — answering lingering questions about how most of the state’s teachers would be evaluated. That’s according to Tom Tomberlin, the Department of Public Instruction’s district human capital director.

Implementation would be a heavy lift, he said.

“We have more questions than we have answers,” Tomberlin told WRAL in July.

Lawmakers — who would have the final say on whether the licensure system would be overhauled and how — have already asked for major changes to the state’s educator licensure models. State officials believe getting the state’s Republican-led General Assembly to approve vast pay increases for teachers is only possible if they are attached to effectiveness requirements.

The proposal wouldn’t affect the state’s 100,000-plus teachers for a few years or longer. But it’s coming up as schools face pandemic-related challenges to hiring and to getting students on grade level across subjects.

Many educators are wondering how many teachers would be able to keep teaching if the model were implemented. Tomberlin said about 15% of teachers don’t meet or exceed expectations in the value-added model in a given year. Only about 40% of teachers teach courses that are subject to the model — because not every course has a standardized test – and it’s not clear how many of them would fail to meet or exceed expectations in three out of five years.

“This would be a gigantic shift to using these scores for something much more serious,” said Parmenter, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg teacher. “And I'm concerned about what the impact is going to be on the pipeline as a result.”

An increase in support

For years, North Carolina’s teacher pipeline has been dwindling. More than 7,000 North Carolina teachers are quitting the profession each year, but the number of North Carolinians training to replace them is only about half that, Department of Public Instruction reports show. That gives schools fewer choices — or none at all — to fill a classroom vacancy with a qualified educator.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and other education leaders are pushing various aspects of the licensure proposal as ways to attract more people into the profession and to keep people in it.

In the licensure proposal, starting pay for the full professional license would be $56,000, with a 1% raise each year after that — higher than the current $54,000 maximum annual salary available to only the most experienced teachers. The proposal doesn’t seek to change the 12% pay bump teachers with National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification receive. No teachers would lose pay under the proposal.

The highest-scoring teachers would be eligible for higher-paying leadership positions, in which they’d continue to teach some but would also provide more mentoring, performance reviews and instructional leadership for fellow teachers. Those leadership positions would be newly funded positions, with a limited number allotted to each school system.

The proposal, in theory, would be better for everyone than the current system, said Maureen Stover, a former state teacher of the year and a spokesperson for the plan. Stover says teachers would earn more and have more support and feedback, and students would benefit from ever-improving instructional approaches.

“[It] revolutionizes our ability to really ensure that our kids are getting the educational opportunities that they deserve in our public schools,” Stover said.

That would be especially impactful in small school districts that can’t afford the instructional support that larger or wealthier districts can, she said.

“One of the things that would be really a huge game-changer with this draft proposal is that those support positions would be built in at the state level,” Stover said.

An increase in pay at the amount proposed would be drastic, though not enough to close the gap between what the typical bachelor’s degree-holder earns in a lifetime compared to what a teacher earns. According to a 2021 Georgetown University report, bachelor’s degree holders earn about $2.8 million in a lifetime. The proposal, if the pay scale were never adjusted for inflation, would move lifetime earnings for a 30-year teacher from just less than $1.6 million in a lifetime to $1.9 million in a lifetime.

The average annual salary supplement of $5,123 per year would add $153,690 in 30 years of teaching.

How it would work

Before a teacher can obtain the full professional license under the proposal — which requires the determination of three years of effective teaching — they can have one of four licenses:

  • An apprentice teacher, a new position that would pay $30,000 to people who are still earning their Bachelor’s degrees.
  • A License I teacher, a Bachelor-degree holder who would earn $38,000 while still working on some educator preparation requirements
  • A License II teacher, a teacher who has passed exams and obtained certain credentials and who would earn $40,000 while working as the sole classroom teacher
  • A License III teacher, an education-degree holder who has passed exams and who would earn $45,000.

All four of those licenses would be temporary and ineligible for renewal. New teachers could earn a full professional license in as little as three years, if they proved effectiveness in each of their first three years.

Meanwhile, student teachers could finally be paid as apprentice teachers, but DPI officials have said only a limited number of apprenticeships would be available to student teachers.

Currently, student teaching is a college course. Student teachers pay to take the course and work dozens of hours each week, usually without pay.

The lack of pay causes some prospective educators to walk away from the profession, says Erin Horne, North Carolina State University assistant dean for professional education and accreditation. Some change their major for their final semesters and then apply to teach as lateral-entry teachers, if they return to education at all, Horne said.

Lateral-entry — when prospective educators have an undergraduate degree in something other than education but has decided to become a teacher — is increasingly common in North Carolina. Those teachers are given limited licenses and considered “residency” teachers, who must work with a college or university to earn whatever credentials they need — while working as full-time teachers — to become eligible for a full professional license.

In Louisiana, demonstrated effectiveness is required to obtain a full teaching license and renew it. Educators are evaluated using a combination of two of three methods, one of which is value-added modeling

In Maryland, teachers must have “satisfactory school-related experience” for three out of the past five years to obtain a license and to renew it. Those evaluations must include value-added modeling, but they can’t count for more than 35% of the overall evaluation.

Louisiana’s licensure overhaul hasn’t solved hiring issues in the state. Since the 2016-17 school year, the state has increasingly employed inexperienced teachers, teachers from outside the field and emergency-licensed teachers. Data from Maryland cover only the 2019, 2020 and 2021 school years, in which variations among experience levels, year-to-year, were slight.

‘A lot of stress’

The use of student test scores to determine teachers’ effectiveness is a philosophical debate unto itself.

Standardized tests measure what states have decided they want students to know, while many teachers argue they unfairly distill months of learning into a single-day snapshot that results in a highly politicized number.

Value-added models attempt to measure growth, rather than whether a student passed or didn’t pass their test.

The measurement judges students — and, eventually, their teachers — against one another, in terms of how well they perform on a standardized test against how well they were predicted to perform on the test. It uses students’ scale scores, or percentile scores, to judge performance. So if a student was predicted to place in the 55th percentile but placed in the 50th percentile, they would pose a negative growth score.

While state officials and other experts contend its value-added model is a more fair measurement of teacher effectiveness than raw test scores, many educators remain skeptical that it is fair.

That lack of clarity has frustrated some teachers, who don’t know what to make of their scores — why they are what they are or what to do with them.

Rhett Carlson, a science teacher at Enloe Magnet High School in Wake County, thinks he received his best scores when he was teaching higher-achieving students. He’s also taught students with disabilities and worries what incentive teachers would have under the new proposal to teach those students.

Jason Wolfe, a biology teacher at Green Hope High school in Wake County, said his growth score changed drastically when he changed jobs years ago — from plus-1 at Enloe Magnet High School to plus-6 at Wakefield High School — though he didn’t think his teaching style had changed. Wolfe thinks Wakefield High had more students in the middle of the pack academically and therefore more opportunities to move students up the scale than other schools.

Still, he had to have monthly meetings with administration at Wakefield to see how his unit test results were matching up with students’ predicted test scores.

“It really added a lot of stress,” he said. So, spurred also by a couple of other reasons, he quit and went to teach at Green Hope High School. There, students’ test scores are good and not a cause of worry, so he finds himself less stressed out. He doesn’t look at his scores anymore.

“When you’re talking about paying people based on a system, it needs to be accurate and it needs to be fair,” Wolfe said.

Parmenter says he hasn’t understood the pattern of his own EVAAS scores, which have fluctuated but have always met expectations. Sometimes students having a good year get test anxiety or have another issue and don’t do well on their standardized tests, he said.

“It's just that the fluctuations in what the score reports are saying, don't line up with my observations,” Parmenter said.

Stover cautioned against concluding that EVAAS scores — or student test scores — would be the only way a teacher’s value were surmised. That one number, she said, is just one of three options teachers would have under the proposal to prove their effectiveness. Teachers can select which one they want, Stover said, while acknowledging the details of the other two methods haven’t been fleshed out yet.

April Lee, a math and social studies teacher at Four Oaks Middle School in Johnston County, worries the proposal, by including competitive, higher-paying teacher leadership positions, will spur competition among teachers, rather than the collegiality she thinks is best for “teacher working conditions and student learning conditions.”

“We all know that there's going to be a finite number of spots for those top positions,” Lee said.

‘Not a panacea’

Professions other than teaching don’t use value-added modeling in performance evaluation, though they might use them for research, said Hansen, the Brookings fellow. Medical fields have balked at their use for consequential evaluation, out of concern they would incentivize doctors to care only for generally healthy patients.

It can work better in teaching by controlling for student demographics, Hansen said, but value-added modeling has its limits.

“Value-added itself is not a panacea for managing teachers because all value-added tells you is how well you’re doing in comparison to other teachers,” Hansen said. “It’s not telling you that you need to emphasize this standard more. It doesn’t tell you that you’re not doing enough to draw out more questions in the classroom or that you need to control classroom behavior. … That’s a valid critique.”

Feedback comes from principal observations or other observations, he said.

Where individual school systems have implemented consequences of value-added modeling scores, Hansen said, retention has mirrored those scores — teachers deemed less effective have higher turnover rates.

Hansen believes value-added modeling tools like EVAAS have worth and have a place.

“Value-added is seen as one tool in the evaluation toolbox, and it should not be the only tool, but it is an important tool,” Hansen said. Assessments, observations and student surveys should also be used to gauge effectiveness, he said.

Many experts say value-added models, which have been refined for decades, can be accurate. That is, actual growth scores tend to not stray wildly from the predicted growth scores.

But some say the models are more accurate at scale, rather than at the individual teacher level, raising concern about whether they can be used to judge employment for a single person.

“The biggest issue for trying to use value-added models for some of these higher stakes decisions … like pay, or dismissals, or hiring or any other sort of incentive, is value-added models can be very imprecise,” said Lam Pham, an assistant professor of education at NC State University.

More data going into the algorithm makes it more precise, Pham said, but some teachers only have a couple dozen students or fewer.

Robert Floden, professor of education at Michigan State University, said states are better off combining measures of effectiveness, to reduce the volatility of one measurement, such as EVAAS. That could include weighing EVAAS alongside classroom observations.

“The hope is, in looking at a variety of things, you'll do better than looking at a single measure,” Floden said. “And the basic principle of measurement, multiple measures generally are better than basing everything on a single measure.“

‘Decline in respect’

The proposal fails to address some of the biggest stressors of teaching, many teachers have argued. Beyond concerns about underpayment, the teaching profession is heavily scrutinized and rarely rewarded, Lee and others said.

New laws have created more and more paperwork, student behavioral issues have been rising for years and the intense pressure of educational politics — from parents and lawmakers — has left many teachers feeling unheard or unsupported. The average teacher, studies show, works 50 hours or more per week.

Lee and others noted that the state General Assembly has cut professional development funding, ended the higher pay scale for new teachers with master’s degrees, kept base salary levels below the rate of inflation, and cut certain benefits upon retirement. Teachers now find themselves in the midst of the culture wars — debate over race, gender and sexuality popular among politicians whose grievances often center on educators.

“The other piece of this is the decline in the amount of respect for public educators over the years,” Lee said. “There's been a sharp turn — the negativity about public school educators, the quality of our instruction, indoctrination, all the things that have been from buzzwords in the past several years. And we all understand that it makes it a challenging profession. And why do you want to go into that, with low pay and obstacles? And so now we are feeling the brunt of that. I spent three out of the four, nine weeks this year teaching a seventh grade math class during my planning, because we didn't have seventh grade math position filled.”

The principal taught the class at one point, too. At another point, another math teacher taught two math classes simultaneously.

The North Carolina Association of Educators and other interest groups have called for the full funding of the comprehensive remedial plan outlined in the long-running education adequacy lawsuit, known as Leandro.

The plan — agreed to among parties, including the State Board of Education and Gov. Roy Cooper — seeks to resolve the issues found in the lawsuit.

When it comes to the teaching profession, the plan calls for a study of competitive pay rates for school employees, more mentorship for younger teachers, more coaching for all teachers, more funding for professional development, more investments in programs that help college students become teachers, incentivizes to retain teachers in lower-income or rural areas, and expanded opportunities for high performing teachers to support their fellow teachers, among other things.

Since being agreed to in June 2021, lawmakers have provided additional funding for educator salary supplements in rural and lower-income school systems and raised pay statewide but not studied competitive compensation.

The licensure model would expand advanced teaching roles. Currently, most of those roles are not funded, and most teacher leaders aren’t earning more for taking on extra duties.

The North Carolina Supreme Court is mulling enforcement of the plan but hasn’t yet issued an order on an appeal that’s attempting to get the court to require the state to implement the plan.

The North Carolina General Assembly would ultimately decide the bones of the teacher licensure system, and that means it could look very different one day than it does now.

Members of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Committee have noted the model attempts to find a balance between two competing interests — educators who believe they need more pay and support and fiscally conservative lawmakers who are unhappy with educational outcomes.

Some argued that a significant pay raise will have to come with an incentive for selective-spending lawmakers, especially given the size of the profession and the cost a raise for all would pose.

In terms of real dollars, teachers in North Carolina and nationwide have been earning steadily less over the past decade, Floden said. They make less in comparison to other professionals with similar education levels.

“If you want legislators to pay teachers more, you need to make an argument that you've got a system that isn’t ... going to be paying a lot of people who aren't doing very well more,” Floden said. The increase in standardized tests is what some have called “the test for taxes,” he said.

It’s a bargain “that you can get the electorate to raise taxes for schools,” Floden said. “If you did something that showed that you were really paying attention to the teachers doing a good job, whatever that meant.”

Lawmakers could alter the proposal and state education officials would be charged with figuring out how to implement the final licensure law.

That likely would necessitate more public input in the form of focus or other groups, Tomberlin said.

Teachers told WRAL News they hope more classroom teachers can have an active voice going forward.

That voice wasn’t there at the beginning, when groups were holding nonpublic meetings on the foundation of the current proposal, Parmenter said.

The North Carolina licensure proposal, in its current form, is the result of several months of feedback to the state’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Committee from four subcommittees largely made up of education administrators, academics and non-school leaders from across the state.

The committee’s draft is largely based on a proposal from the Southern Regional Board of Education and the state Department of Public Instruction’s Human Capital Roundtable, which held private meetings with the help of the Gates Foundation before preparing a model in 2021. That model matched another drafted by the SREB for Mississippi, which hasn’t been adopted.

That the process hasn’t been more transparent has been a bother to some educators such as Parmenter. “Very little has changed since that point,” he said. “So the work that was actually done to create this thing was done completely in secret.”