Weighing in on “Teachers and the Great Economic Debate”

This Monday, I had the privilege of attending the latest version of the NCSU-sponsored Emerging Issues Forum, entitled Teachers and the Great Economic Debate. There was a star-studded lineup of speakers at the event, including former NC Governor Jim Hunt Jr., best-selling author and human motivation expert Daniel Pink, Time Magazine contributor Amanda Ripley, Harvard economist Raj Chetty, and Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, just to name a few. The Monday session culminated with a visit from North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, who reiterated his plan, first unveiled earlier in the day, to significantly raise pay for teachers within the first 10 years of their careers (a good start, at least).

The purpose of the conference was to engage business leaders, policymakers, diverse national and international experts, and educators in a shared conversation about how to best recruit, train, support, and retain world-class teachers for every North Carolina classroom. Multiple speakers confirmed how the presence of caring, high-performing, world-class teachers is the key variable behind improved educational outcomes for our students. This, in turn, correlates directly to things we all want for our children, things such as improved health, fulfillment, and lifetime income levels.

This was a highly informative and inspiring experience. I spent much of the day reflecting on how my new learning applied to my work at Orange Charter School. The conference affirmed so many of the amazing things that we are already doing while also raising several important questions. I will share my reflections now:

  • What a gifted instructional staff we have at OCS. Though it is admittedly difficult to quantify exactly what it means to be a “world-class” teacher, it is evident that we have a majority of these at OCS, (with multiple others well on their way). I am grateful to work in the presence of so many teacher innovators and leaders!
  • Competitive and fair compensation for teachers was a hot topic at the forum as it continues to be in our state and entire nation. Rightfully so. The work of teachers is too challenging and too impactful to not reward properly. Insufficient pay hurts us at both ends of the pipeline: the brightest individuals are increasingly avoiding the field altogether while an unprecedented talent drain is occurring to more educator-friendly, ofttimes neighboring, states. Similarly, speaker Tyronna Hooker, an Eastern NC District Director for the Teach for America Program, jokingly referred to the “moment of silence” that follows a young person’s announcement to pursue a teaching career.
  • Therefore, like the rest of our state’s public schools, with regards to teacher compensation, we still have much room to grow at OCS. However, I would say confidently that we are doing better than most. Specifically, I was proud to share details of our innovative teacher performance pay system with other conference participants. For those of you who are unaware, this system qualifies our instructional staff for several tiers of annual raises based on their performance in four key areas: 1-Individual Teaching, 2-Professionalism & Collaboration, 3-Leadership in the School Community, 4-Innovation in Teaching Curriculum. This system was thoughtfully developed by a team of parent and teacher leaders starting last Spring and received final approval at a Board of Director’s Meeting this Fall.
  • A promising next step in the realm of teacher pay that was widely discussed at the forum was the notion of a “career ladder” system for teachers comparable to that in the nursing profession. Essentially, teachers would earn promotions and correspondingly higher pay linked to performance-based criteria such as student academic growth, academic and/or professional learning, and/or assuming an expanded school-wide leadership role. This type of system could offer high-performing teachers a realistic pathway to increased leadership and increased pay without having to leave the classroom, where their talents are so desperately needed. Even Governor McCrory himself expressed a vision of elite teachers in a school (eventually) earning pay comparable to that of school administrators. That is a dream worth discussing. I look forward to engaging teachers, parents, board members, and community leaders in an ongoing conversation about this highly complicated, yet vitally important, topic.
  • Have you all heard about the dramatic turnaround story that happened recently with public education in Finland!? In the last 30-35 years, the Finnish public education system has transformed itself from a sub-par to mediocre performer on most measures of educational quality to an unquestioned international leader, if not clear #1. Finnish education leader Pasi Sahlberg shared some of their “secrets to success”. He spoke of a multi-pronged approach that chiefly included: 1- increased respect for the teaching profession based on elevated admission standards to teaching colleges and elevated degree requirements prior to earning initial certification, 2-universal access to pre-kindergarten programs, and 3-closer connections between school and career pathways, leading to higher levels of student engagement and focus towards their learning. He also pointed out some really surprising contrasts between Finnish and American schools that I’ll have to save for another time/blog entry, such as fewer elective and extracurricular offerings, less access to technology, and parent support for learning taking place less in the schoolhouse yet more so at home.
  • So, needless to say, the Finnish model won’t translate directly to US schools, including Orange Charter. But what elements can and/or should we borrow? How can we replicate some of that Finnish magic? I think we can and should focus on continuing to support the heart of our school, our teaching and support staff. I intend to continue giving them the freedom to teach according to high expectations (yet with minimal interference), the support they need in the form of self-identified resources and/or training opportunities, and the time they need to plan collaboratively and share expertise with one another. In fact, along those lines, as we dig deeper into our innovative new STEAM teaching model, I will propose at our next  Board of Directors meeting that we increase our number of Early Release Days in 2014-2015 to support increased teacher learning and collaboration time. Likewise, I am proud of the PATH Committee’s recent effort to directly survey teachers about ways in which they can be better supported.

What are your thoughts on the above topics? Please share them directly via e-mail or face-to-face. Meanwhile, I will be asking our web designer about the possibility of an online discussion board.

I suppose it might be important to close any blog entry like this one with a disclaimer such as this one: The opinions expressed in the above post are mine and mine alone and aren’t meant to officially represent Orange Charter School, its Board of Directors, or any of its associates, for that matter.

Have a great rest of the week and stay safe in the wintry weather!