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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as N.C. Teachers Battle State Over Firings

N.C. Teachers Battle State Over Firings

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The first teachers to be fired under North Carolina's 2-year-old accountability program are fighting their dismissals and, in the process, providing an early illustration of the struggles that may lie ahead as states push administrators and teachers to take more responsibility for student achievement.

At issue in North Carolina is how far a state's authority extends into hiring and firing decisions, how teachers' performance can be evaluated fairly, and what penalties can be imposed on educators for inadequate performance in the classroom.

The challenge marks the second time this year that teachers have clashed with state officials over North Carolina's ABCs of Public Education plan, the 1996 law that set up a system of rewards and sanctions for schools and teachers based on student test scores.

Although the legislature has taken further action to strengthen the state board's authority to get rid of bad teachers, there may be more battles ahead.

"I think we're going to get into even more legal battles about property rights" between state and local officials, said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators. The National Education Association affiliate is representing the dismissed teachers in their appeal.

Most states have begun to create and implement programs in the past few years to hold schools more accountable for student achievement. Such programs may include statewide academic standards, state assessments, assistance to failing schools, and rewards and penalties for schools based on student performance. Ten states have provisions for replacing principals or teachers under such policies, according to an Education Week survey on states' accountability efforts that is scheduled for release next month in Quality Counts '99.

While 16 states allow for schools to be closed, taken over by state officials, or "reconstituted," meaning that a largely new staff is put in place, only a handful have used such sanctions, the survey found.

And although some states and districts have transferred teachers and staff members, North Carolina may be the first state to fire a teacher under its performance-based accountability program, according to Kathy Christie, the director of the Education Commission of the States clearinghouse in Denver.

Tense Relationship

Under dispute in North Carolina are the cases of Thayle Sanderson and Patricia Dickens, teachers at Rex-Rennert Elementary School in Shannon. They were fired by the state school board last June after a state assistance team assigned to the school found their performance inadequate.

Even by themselves, the dismissals by the state would likely have created resentment. Adding to the rancor, though, was the action of the local school board in Robeson County, which includes Shannon. The board rehired Ms. Sanderson and Ms. Dickens almost immediately, claiming that the state board's actions infringed on local control over hiring and firing.

"Because they were still licensed, it was my opinion that if they could be hired in Buncombe County, or any other county, they could be hired back in Robeson," said Grady Hunt, the district's lawyer.

Ms. Sanderson is now on disability leave; Ms. Dickens is still teaching in the district, although at a different school.

Both teachers have appealed the state board's decision. An initial ruling by a three-member panel of the state board is several months away. Until the appeals process is exhausted, the two teachers have been advised not to talk about their cases.

Rex-Rennert Elementary was one of 15 North Carolina public schools--out of 2,000--that were identified as low-performing in the state's first school-by-school report cards. Under the accountability law, only teachers at those schools in need of drastic improvement undergo assessment by the state assistance teams.

Many of the targeted schools are among the most disadvantaged in the state and have high proportions of minority students, including Rex-Rennert. The 23,000-student Robeson County district is more than 40 percent American Indian, about one-third African-American, and one-fourth white. Its per-pupil expenditure is among the lowest in the state.

By all accounts, last school year at Rex-Rennert was a divisive one, in which the state consultants were pitted against many of the teachers and staff members at the 360-student school.

Both state and local officials acknowledge that the assistance team's arrival at the school was "quite tense," and that "the tension just didn't subside there," as it had at other schools, according to Elsie Leak, the director of school improvement for the state education department.

Supporters of the dismissed teachers say that they were expected to meet unreasonable expectations and that, when they complained, they were penalized.

"Here are two career teachers who met the test of other evaluation processes and all of a sudden they're not good teachers?" said the union's Mr. Wilson. "At the state level, they had blind loyalty to the evaluators, but at the local level, there was a sense that something was wrong."

Ms. Sanderson, a 24-year veteran who taught prekindergarten at the school, was respected by her colleagues and had a reputation for preparing her young charges for success in kindergarten, union officials said. Ms. Dickens, who had taught in the Robeson County system for six years, was shuffled from grade to grade during the few years she taught at the school and was evaluated by the team only a few weeks after being transferred from a 5th grade classroom to the kindergarten level.

"Our argument goes at both the legality of the statute ... and whether or not these were teachers who were fairly evaluated," said John Gresham, the union lawyer representing the pair.

Despite the conflict, the school improved slightly on state tests this year, but still did not meet goals set by the state. With about half the students performing at grade level on math and reading tests, Rex-Rennert was taken off the list of low-performing schools.

Revocation Replaces Test

Although North Carolina's ABCs program has created some anxiety among educators, it has generally been praised for shining a light on schools that need more state resources and attention, and for rewarding schools that show considerable improvement.

While the three- to five-member assistance teams, which are made up of teachers and administrators on loan from other districts, were initially met with apprehension, some schools came to see them as the cavalry riding in with much-needed supplies and support, some observers say.

"In some low-performing schools, the state assistance teams were so well-respected that teachers chose to resign because [the team] said they weren't doing a good job," said Mr. Wilson of the state teachers' union. More than a dozen teachers at the low-performing schools resigned after the assistance teams made clear they would not pass their second evaluation.

In light of the Robeson County dispute, the legislature revised the law, making it even tougher on teachers. The state board can no longer fire teachers. But it can revoke the licenses of those who receive two poor evaluations from an assistance team, making them essentially unhirable by any district in the state--their own included.

The union agreed to back those changes last summer in a compromise over a controversial competency test that the state was set to administer to 247 teachers at the low-performing schools. In what the union sees as a victory, the test will now only be used for teachers whose general competency is identified as a problem in their performance evaluations. ("N.C. Lawmakers Revoke Teacher-Testing Plan," June 17, 1998.)

Still, Mr. Wilson said that it may be unfair to take away a teacher's ability to work in the state based on his or her performance at a school that would challenge the skills of even the best teachers.

"Sometimes an individual may not be successful in one situation but may be in another," he said. "To take away their certificate is to take away any opportunity to demonstrate success."

Singled Out

Singling out individual teachers, especially when only a small proportion of schools are targeted, could get sticky for states preparing to issue such sanctions, according to Jim Watts, the vice president for state services for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board. The board has been tracking accountability efforts in 16 Southern states.

"Sanctions have to be part of a comprehensive [accountability] program," he said. "But [challenges to such measures] are likely to happen more in the future."

Ms. Christie of the Education Commission of the States questions why so few teachers out of the dozens who teach at the schools North Carolina identified as low-performing were singled out as part of a state's comprehensive program to improve student achievement.

"It's highly unusual to have only two teachers out of a whole building" identified as inadequate, Ms. Christie said. "Two teachers don't make for all the problems of a low-performing school."

Though a state may still have to step in to deal with extreme circumstances, Mr. Watts said, "there have to be intermediate measures that respect local autonomy."

North Carolina officials believe they are on solid legal ground.

"The state board and the General Assembly agree very strongly with more local control, and that's the direction we're going in a lot of programs and budget issues," said Phillip J. Kirk Jr., the chairman of the state school board. "However, sometimes the local politics and personalities get involved, and local boards sometimes don't have the courage to eliminate a mediocre teacher."

An average of 70 percent of North Carolina's local school budgets, and 100 percent of teachers' salaries, are subsidized by the state. But school personnel are considered employees of the districts that hire them, according to Edwin E. Dunlap, the executive director of the North Carolina State School Boards Association. Still, the organization, which represents the state's 100 local school boards, agrees that the state has to take the lead in extreme cases.

"We would be mortified if the state board went in to a district and, carte blanche, started firing teachers," Mr. Dunlap said. "But under unique circumstances of vast performance deficiencies uncovered under the ABC plan, the state board is additionally empowered."

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 1,9

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