A public school teacher’s open letter to State Rep. Paul Stam

A public school teacher’s open letter to State Rep. Paul Stam

Open-letter2

Dear Rep. Stam:

I listened with great interest to your recent interview with Alex Granados on EdNC.org’s podcast released on January 22nd. I thought you spoke with great candor and conviction about what you felt were positive reforms for public education enacted during your tenure – a tenure that will soon end as you indicated you will not seek re-election for a ninth term.

I am a veteran teacher of 18 years, 12 of them here in North Carolina. For most of those years, you have been crafting policy on education in Raleigh, and in that span of time the terrain of public education has changed drastically.

Many items mentioned in your interview are worth debating. As someone who works in the public schools, I have taken issue with many of the “reforms” you have championed, specifically, using public money to pay private school tuition through vouchers and attempting to block discrimination policies from being adopted in charter schools that are financed by the state.

But the statements concerning teacher compensation during this recent interview — most notably on three rather polarizing issues that you declared shape your unfounded views of what teachers do in their classrooms – demand a response.

1. “Best” and “Unbest” Teachers – You said in the interview that “we do not pay our best teachers enough and we pay our ‘unbest’ teachers too much.”

I have not really heard the terms “best” and “unbest” used on actual teacher evaluations and would very much like to hear what how such labels might be applied in the real world. But I believe you are touching on teacher effectiveness and teacher evaluations as currently measured by the state.

The problem with teacher evaluation processes in the state of North Carolina is that they are arbitrary at best. No one single protocol has been used to measure teacher effectiveness in your tenure as a legislator. That’s because there has not been one that accurately reflects teacher performance. In fact, during your tenure in Raleigh we have switched curriculum and evaluation protocols multiple times. It seems that teachers are always having to measure up to ever-changing standards that no one can seem to make stand still, much less truly evaluate.

One glaring problem in current teacher evaluations is that most rely too much on student test performances on prepared assessments. These assessments are generally not created by the education professionals who teach these students; they are constructed by entities that are paid to create arbitrary tests that offer a snapshot into one day of a school year. What teachers accomplish is over 180 school days and it would take much more than an impersonal test to measure that.

Consider the recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools. The study revealed a large disconnect between what is supposed to be taught and what is actually being tested in schools today. As reported in a Washington Post story last year (“Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools”) the study concluded that “most schools are requiring too many tests of dubious value.” Standardized tests are largely written by for-profit entities and often are graded by contractors – not teachers.

In an editorial I wrote this past fall entitled “Too much standardized testing,” I commented on this as detrimental to measuring teachers and questioned our state’s reliance on such tests.

“And how many teachers have been falsely labeled as ‘underperforming’ because of scores on standardized tests that are not completely valid? How many teachers of differently-abled and exceptional students have had to watch as the progress of those students gets minimized by standardized tests not meant for non-standard students? And how many times has the GOP-led General Assembly used those school performance grades and standardized tests scores to falsely legitimize the growth of Opportunity Grants to religious and private schools and the construction of charter schools, many of which do not have to administer the same standardized tests?”

As an eight-term General Assembly member, I very much would like to hear your answers to these questions.

I personally teach multiple sections of AP English Language and Composition and am subject to an evaluation model called the Assessment of Student Work (ASW). I go through a process in which I submit student samples that must prove those students are showing ample growth.

In June of 2015, I uploaded my documents in the state’s system and had to wait until November to get results. The less-than-specific comments from the unknown assessor(s) were contradictory at best. They included:

Alignment

Al 1 The evidence does not align to the chosen objective.

Al 4 All of the Timelapse Artifacts in this Evidence Collection align to the chosen objectives.

Growth

Gr 1 Student growth is apparent in all Timelapse Artifacts.

Gr 2 Student growth is apparent between two points in time.

Gr 3 Student growth is not apparent between two points in time.

Gr 4 Student growth samples show achievement but not growth.

Gr 9 Evidence is clear/easily accessible

Gr 10 Evidence is not clear/not easily accessible

Narrative Context

NC 1 Narrative Context addresses all of the key questions and supports understanding of the evidence.

NC 4 Narrative Context does not address one or more of the key questions.

And these comments did not correspond to any specific part of my submission. In fact, I am more confused about the process than ever before. It took more than five months for someone who may not have one-fifth of my experience in the classroom to communicate this to me. If this is supposed to supply me with the tools to help guide my future teaching, then I would have to say that this would be highly insufficient, maybe even “unbest.”

2. Merit Pay & Differential Pay – I do not know of a single instance in public education in which merit pay actually has increased student achievement. Yet, you not only advocate merit pay, but differential pay (pay based on the teacher’s willingness ‘to take on additional tasks’ like clubs, coaching, mentoring and chairing of departments) as well.

First, look at merit pay. The bottom line is that merit pay destroys collaboration and promotes competition. That is antithetical to the premise of public education. Not only does it force teachers to work against each other, it fosters an atmosphere of exclusivity and disrespect. What could be more detrimental to our students?

Effective public schools are collaborative communities, not buildings full of contractors who are determined to outperform each other for the sake of money. And when teachers are forced to focus on the results of test scores, teaching ceases to be a dynamic relationship between student and teacher and devolves into a transaction driven by a carrot on an extended stick.

Furthermore, the GOP-led General Assembly still does not seem to acknowledge that student growth is different than student test scores. When some of our colleagues deal with students who experience poverty, health issues and other giant roadblocks, how can one say that those teachers do not “grow” those students when an arbitrary test score is all that is used to measure students?

Besides, if you think merit pay is effective, then I would question your willingness to fund that merit pay. Anyone who has taught in North Carolina for an extended period of time remembers that we had the “ABC’s” program in effect for years which gave teachers/schools bonuses based on scores. One problem with that model (and you stated it in the interview) was that it pitted teachers against each other. Another problem that you did not mention is that Raleigh decided not to fund it any longer.

How would you like it if you were subject to merit pay as a legislator? Since your work affects all of our state, maybe your evaluation should be conducted by people outside of your district arbitrarily chosen without your input. Maybe your pay should be dependent on their report. Imagine if those people were registered with another political party who supported LGBT rights. Imagine if you had no say in that evaluation process, kind of like a public school teacher.

Your argument for differential pay does not hold much water either. It is very hard to quantify what teachers do for the betterment of the school community. On top of teaching more classes and more students now than when I first taught in North Carolina, I serve on committees, attend workshops while having to provide sub plans, work on recertification, coach academic teams, sponsor two clubs, chair a fantastic English department and provide tutoring. Can you honestly put a “market value” (words you used) on that? Oh, and that does not include the hours spent at home grading and planning.

If North Carolina paid teachers on an hourly wage at “market” value, then you would literally see almost every teacher’s income double. But, of course, that would undermine our reputation for being in the lowest rung of states in compensating teachers. And if market value is something that you want to use as a guideline for teacher pay, then simply look at our teacher salaries in comparison to other states. In that context, we are literally driving the market down.

Ironically, you also promoted the idea of “career pathways.” If that was really a priority in Raleigh, then our General Assembly would not have eliminated graduate degree pay increases and stunted salary schedules. Most “promotions” that teachers obtain come in the form of higher education and certification which we have to finance ourselves and still fulfill while working for below-market wages.

3. Subject Areas – You stated that some subjects are more important than others in our curriculum, but that teachers would complain if one subject was treated more favorably than others. You said, “Subjects that don’t cost as much in the real world such as English, Language Arts, and Social Studies, they would become upset at the thought” of others getting more (money). “But that’s what life is,” you continued. “That’s how private business operates.”

That sounds more like a mantra for those who want to privatize public schools.

If some subjects matter more than others, then why do schools weigh all classes the same on a transcript? If some subjects matter more than others, then why do we teach all of those subjects? I certainly feel that, as an English teacher, the need to teach reading and writing skills is imperative to success in any endeavor that a student wishes to pursue after graduation. In fact, what teachers in any subject area are trained to do is to not just impart knowledge, but treat every student as an individual with unique learning styles, abilities, and aptitudes in a manner that lets each student grow as a person – one who can create and make his/her own choices.

What subjects were most important for you to obtain a law degree? Maybe they all were important – the sciences AND the liberal arts.

However, what stings most about your comments concerning teacher compensation and what should be taught in schools is your insistence that what high schools teach should be “market driven.”

I would argue that we should not be driven by the market when it comes to education. The market itself is driven by innovation and ideas. That means the market is driven by skilled people who are willing to learn on their own and follow through on ideas and work through obstacles.

As a proponent of choice, you should know that being able to take advantage of any option in life is contingent on critical thinking skills, problem solving capabilities, effective communications abilities, and an understanding of what has worked in the past. Teachers in all subjects are vital in preparing students to make those choices.

And that is hard to assess with singular tests. That is measured over a lifetime.

Stuart Egan, NBCT, is a public school teacher at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons.