LAUREL HILL — During a visit to a school system that has been hit hard by cuts to the state’s education budget, a senior gubernatorial adviser told teachers, administrators and officials that North Carolina needs to revamp the ways it evaluates teacher performance and compensates educators for their work.
“I think that the system at which we pay teachers is archaic,” Eric Guckian said between visiting classrooms at Laurel Hill Elementary School. “It’s just based on how long you’ve been around, and we need to do something about it.”
Guckian, a former teacher who now serves as senior adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory’s Education Cabinet, visited some of the 510 students in the school’s classrooms and participated in meetings with administration and teachers. He said what he had heard most in conversations was the need for teachers to have a clear-cut career plan that offers adequate compensation along the way.
“Teachers, just like any professional, need to see a rewarding career path, need to be able to say ‘OK, these are the steps I need to take,’ not only in terms of student achievement — and when I say student achievement I don’t just mean test scores,” he said. “The impact that they’re having in the classroom and the kids, that needs to be incredibly high focus.”
Pay for North Carolina teachers has fallen in five years from 25th to 46th, with the average yearly salary of an entry-level teacher hovering around $30,000. With the exception of a 1.2 percent raise last year, teachers at public schools and professors at private universities have experienced a salary freeze for the last five years — something that school principal Jonathan McRae said was his top concern, as was the school system’s layoff of 44 teaching assistants last month.
“When you look at the budget and things like that you have to make some tough decisions,” said Pamela Baldwin, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Scotland County Schools, who tagged along on the tour. “I think when we look at education, a lot of times teachers tend to get the negative, and we need to make sure we are pulling for them.”
This year’s state budget nixed pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees. McCroy on Sept. 4 announced that $10 million would be added to cover those increases, but some are concerned that won’t be enough to foot the bill for all state educators who earn a master’s degree.
Guckian, along with McRae; assistant principal Maggie Wells; Baldwin and Charles Jenkins, Bryan Winters and Olivia Oxendine, of the School of Education at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, first visited the classroom of kindergarten teacher Leslie Knauss, who holds a master’s degree and was recently a teacher of the year for the school system.
Knauss sat at a table with three students for an in-depth learning session while groups of two read independently and others were led in activities by a teacher’s assistant. On a table behind her was a ringed notebook with “legislature” scrawled across the front. Appearing often in its pages, she said, were notes of the “continued devaluation of master’s degrees.”
“Don’t tell me that a master’s degree is unnecessary to teaching,” she said. “I learned so much more in my master’s program then I did as an undergrad.”
Knauss said she fears the scarcity of teaching assistant jobs as well as lack of incentive for a higher degree will lead to an assembly-line system of placing teachers fresh out of college, with little or no training, into a classroom.
“Does that (degree) give you the tools you need to teach a child?” she said. “Does it familiarize you with all the subtle nuances of the ways that children learn?”
Guckian said that he frequently hears from educators that they want teaching to be “viable pathway, where they can support a family and also have an impact.”
“How do you develop yourself? How do you collaborate with colleagues? How do you learn from other teachers? These are the things that incentivize people and inspire people, and money is certainly a part of that,” he said.
Baldwin said the school system’s “Big Four” — literacy, education, honors courses and Advanced Placement courses — also have the potential to suffer from government funding, in turn affecting student’s ability to compete on a collegiate level. It’s a subject she breached with Guckian, who on Wednesday also visited The University of North Carolina of Pembroke, in a private meeting.
“We want to be sure that our students, when they graduate from Scotland County High School, can compete with the Wake Counties and the Chapel Hills,” she said. “All that comes down to funds in the end, but its a priority so we’re going to make it happen.
“I think it’s important that teachers feel valued in North Carolina, and that decisions need to be made in the best interests of those on the ground floor doing the most work, which are those working with children directly.”