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Diane Ravitch's Blog: North Carolina Plans to Scrap Experience-Based Teacher Pay and Replace It With Test-Based “Merit Pay”: A Zombie Policy

What can you say when a state decides to adopt a policy that has failed again and again and has been conclusively discredited? I call such proposals “zombie policies,” because they fail and fail but never die.

Justin Parmenter, a National Board Certified Teacher in North Carolina, writes here about a plan in his state to eliminate experienced-based pay and replace it with the obsolete practice of tying teacher pay to student test scores. The leaders in North Carolina call it ”merit pay.” It is also called value-added evaluation and test-based compensation.

Whatever it is called, it is ineffective and demoralizing to tie teacher pay to test scores. Those who teach in affluent districts will be paid more than those who teach in low-income schools or who teach students with disabilities. Presumably, the folks in North Carolina never heard of the POINT study in Nashville, Tennessee, a three-year study of whether teachers would produce higher test scores if offered a big bonus. The conclusion was that the bonus (merit pay) did not make a difference.

The final evaluation concluded:

While the general trend in middle school mathematics performance was upward over the period of the project, students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses). The brightest spot was a positive effect of incentives detected in fifth grade during the second and third years of the experiment. This finding, which is robust to a variety of alternative estimation methods, is nonetheless of limited policy significance, for this effect does not appear to persist after students leave fifth grade. Students whose fifth grade teacher was in the treatment group performed no better by the end of sixth grade than did sixth graders whose teacher the year before was in the control group.

Have the North Carolina policymakers heard about the Gates-funded program to evaluate and pay teachers based on test scores and peer evaluations, which was tried in seven sites, including Hillsborough County, Florida, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and four charter chains? The program cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it was evaluated by the RAND Corporation and AIR. The cost of the program was shared between Gates and the local districts.

The evaluation report of the Gates program was released in 2018. It concluded that the program did not improve student achievement, did not raise graduation rates or dropout rates, and did not change the quality of teachers. In some sites, teacher turnover increased. The neediest students did not get the best teachers because teachers angled to get students who would produce higher test scores. The program planners expected that as many as 20% of the site’s teachers would be fired but only 1% were.

Furthermore, in 2017, a federal judge in Houston threw out precisely the same evaluation system that North Carolina plans to use because teachers were judged by a “secret algorithm” and had “no meaningful way” to ensure that their scores were correctly calculated. The judge wrote: “The [teacher’s] score might be erroneously calculated for any number of reasons, ranging from data-entry mistakes to glitches in the computer code itself. Algorithms are human creations, and subject to error like any other human endeavor.”

Parmenter writes:

draft proposal coming before the State Board of Education next week (April 6) would transition all North Carolina teachers to a system of “merit pay” as soon as 2023.

The proposal represents the culmination of the work of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, which was directed by state legislators to make recommendations on licensure reform.

The proposed change would make North Carolina the first state in the country to stop paying teachers on an experience-based scale that, at least in theory, rewards long-term commitment to a career in education and recognizes the importance of veteran educators (if adequately funded by the state–but that’s a topic for another post).

Instead, compensation would be based largely on teacher effectiveness as determined by EVAAS, a computer algorithm developed by the SAS corporation which analyzes standardized test scores. Teachers who do not have EVAAS scores would receive salaries based on principal observations, observations by colleagues, and student surveys.

This plan is problematic in a number of ways. It would increase “teaching to the test” by offering a handful of larger salaries to those educators whose students do well on tests. Competition over a limited number of larger salaries would lead to teachers working in silos rather than collaborating and sharing best practices as cohesive teams. Teachers of subjects with no standardized tests are raising concerns that observations and student surveys are highly subjective, and basing salaries on them would be unfair.

Dr. Tom Tomberlin, who serves as the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s Director of Educator Recruitment and Support, has justified moving away from an experience-based pay scale by claiming that teacher effectiveness plateaus after the first few years in the classroom.

It’s an argument which shows a major disconnect between DPI and those of us who actually work in schools and experience first hand how important veteran teachers are to overall school operations.

Veteran teachers often work as mentors, run athletic departments, coach sports and deliver professional development for peers.

They have long-standing relationships with school families and community members that position them to be excellent advocates for the needs of their schools.

None of that value is reflected in a veteran teacher’s EVAAS score.

Brenda Berg, CEO of pro-business education reform organization Best NC, has been a vocal proponent of scrapping the experience-based pay scale. Berg, who serves on the compensation subcommittee that helped develop the plan, said this week that it’s clear our current system isn’t working and it’s time to be “bold” about change even if it’s “scary.”

I’d like to note that anyone who claims educator pushback to this plan is centered in fear of change is completely out of touch with what it’s like to be a professional educator. We are the most flexible and resilient people on the planet, and the last two years have illustrated that fact like never before. We also know what it means to be treated fairly.

It’s true that North Carolina is facing a major pipeline crisis, with enrollment in UNC education programs down drastically over the past several years. It’s true that if we aren’t bold about change we will soon have nobody left who’s willing to work in our schools.

But we also need to be bold about acknowledging the reason for this crisis. It isn’t because the licensure process is too cumbersome. It isn’t because veteran teachers are ineffective and making too much money. It isn’t because our teachers lack accountability.

The reason North Carolina’s schools are suffering from a lack of qualified educators is because for the last 12 years our legislature’s policies have made it deeply unappealing to be a teacher in this state. Those policies include cutting master’s pay and longevity pay, taking away teacher assistants, eliminating retiree health benefits and many, many others.

The solution to North Carolina’s teacher pipeline crisis isn’t a system of merit pay which devalues long term commitment to public schools and ties salaries to standardized tests and subjective measures.

The solution to the problem is comprehensive policy change that makes a teaching career in North Carolina an attractive proposition. That’s the kind of change that will allow us to put an excellent teacher in every classroom.

This proposal ain’t it.

You can share feedback on the proposal with Dr. Thomas Tomberlin here: Thomas.Tomberlin@dpi.nc.gov

State Board of Education members will hear Dr. Tomberlin’s presentation at the April 6 board meeting. Their email addresses are:

eric.davis@dpi.nc.gov
alan.duncan@dpi.nc.gov
olivia.oxendine@dpi.nc.gov
reginald.kenan@dpi.nc.gov
amy.white@dpi.nc.gov
James.Ford@dpi.nc.gov
Jill.Camnitz@dpi.nc.gov
Donna.Tipton-Rogers@dpi.nc.gov
JWendell.Hall@dpi.nc.gov
john.blackburn@dpi.nc.gov
mark.robinson@dpi.nc.gov
dale.folwell@dpi.nc.gov

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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for...