Multi-Pronged Education Reform Bill Introduced in North Carolina

Published May 18, 2012

A new North Carolina bill would end social promotion for third graders who read poorly, institute merit pay and tenure limits for teachers, create a state teacher training program modeled on Teach for America, and publicly grade public schools A to F each year.

“One of the problems we’ve had down here is kids are not reading at grade level as they should be,” said Bob Luebke, a senior policy analyst at the Civitas Institute. “We find out that as kids go along and when they get behind, they’re disengaged academically, which results in social problems and contributes mightily to dropouts.”

The package of ideas incorporates reforms that have recently been popular in other states. Virginia, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Louisiana were among the states tackling teacher tenure limits in 2012, while a host of states have considered third-grade retention after viewing results from Florida’s choice to do the same a decade ago.

“It really gets at structural reforms and doesn’t just try to throw more money at the problem, which is something’s we’ve done for a long time with failed results,” Leubke said.

Kids ‘Not Reading at Grade Level’
Sixty-six percent of North Carolinian fourth graders cannot read at grade level but 97 percent are passed to fourth grade, said the bill’s sponsor and Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). He said that motivated him to introduce the Excellent Public Schools Act.

His legislation contains a provision requiring students to undergo summer remediation if they cannot read well by the end of third grade.

“Efforts to boost early literacy will provide a solid foundation for the state’s public school students, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in subsequent years of schooling,” said Terry Stoops, director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Teacher Quality Provisions
Berger’s proposal also aims to encourage quality teaching by substituting annual contracts for permanent teacher tenure, implementing merit pay, and creating an alternative teacher certification program similar to the nationwide Teach for America.

“Teacher quality is paramount to increasing the quality of public schools,” Stoops said. “But Senate leaders recognize that [current] state certification and licensure requirements do not guarantee that a high-quality teacher is in the front of the classroom.”

Instead of the permanent employment guarantees of tenure, the proposal would hire teachers under annual contracts and give superintendents the authority to recommend to the local board of education which teachers should be retained each year. It would also allow local districts to design and implement merit or incentive pay with state funding.

“Rather than giving all teachers automatic pay increases, as North Carolina has done for decades, the Excellent Public Schools Act would focus scarce resources on awarding the very best teachers with a merit bonus,” Stoops said.

While tenure reform and merit pay will likely be the most controversial parts of the plan, Luebke said,  “the majority of teachers are hardworking and the majority of them have absolutely nothing to worry about because they are doing a good job.”

The proposal also includes due process provisions for when teachers are laid off.

Restructuring tenure “empowers local officials, local school superintendents” Luebke said, by allowing “people at the actual school to make those decisions based on how teachers [and] students are doing.”

To direct more talented college graduates to struggling schools, the proposed North Carolina Teacher Corps will recruit, train, and place them as does Teach for America. Students with TFA teachers record better test scores than students with non-TFA teachers, on average.

Mimicking Successful States
The North Carolina legislation’s approach to improving public schools mimics what other states such as Florida, Indiana, and Louisiana have implemented, Stoops said.

More than a decade ago, Florida implemented similar ideas, among several others. Since then, Florida’s students have seen significant achievements in reading scores, and the state has drastically narrowed the achievement gap between minority and white students.

“North Carolina is joining a growing number of states debating fundamental education reform,” said Matt Ladner, research and policy adviser for Florida’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. “North Carolina was an early leader in standards-based reform, and I hope they will follow the evidence where it leads on the next generation of policy innovation.”

Image by Bob Cotter.