In North Carolina, Career-Ladder Plan Nears a Crossroads

By Lynn Olson — February 01, 1989 10 min read

North Carolina’s governor and the state affiliate of the National Education Association are headed toward a major battle over the future of the state’s ambitious and controversial program for paying teachers based on performance.

The state’s Career Development program, now operating in 16 districts, is in its fourth and final year as an experimental venture.

Lawmakers must decide whether to expand it and make a longterm commitment of additional funding or maintain its current scope and risk running out of steam.

Both Gov. James G. Martin and the state board of education would like to take the program statewide. But local presidents of the North Carolina Association of Educators voted overwhelmingly last month to fight the program’s expansion. And members of the General Assembly are divided about the career ladder’s future.

A mail and telephone survey released last month by the Associated Press found that approximately 46 percent of House respondents and 59 percent of Senate respondents opposed immediate statewide implementation of the plan. Another 27 percent and 28 percent, respectively, favored expansion; and the remainder were undecided.

‘Watershed’ Year?

The looming legislative battle could prove to be a “watershed” for the fate of education reform in the state, according to John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit corporation that represents many of the business, civic, government, and education groups in the state.

A relatively sound economy until now has enabled the state to fund its school-reform effort--known as the Basic Education Program--without much difficulty, he said. But a much bleaker revenue forecast for the coming fiscal year, coupled with a growing demand for services, is predicted to lead to stiff competition for resources.

According to Lee Monroe, the Governor’s education adviser, there will be only $232 million in new revenues during 1989-90. Approximately $113 million of that is needed to continue funding the Basic Education Program, a position which both the Governor and lawmakers support. Escalating costs under the state’s medical programs and new prison construction will consume most of the remaining funds, Mr. Monroe said, with “very little money for expansion.”

Estimates for how much the career ladder would cost on a statewide basis vary markedly, with figures ranging from $150 million to $400 million a year.

The Governor has recommended setting aside a reserve fund of $35.8 million in 1989-90 and $190.5 million in 1990-91 to fund some combination of “across-the-board” pay raises for teachers and expansion of the career ladder, based on recommendations by the state board of education.

But he has advocated that no raises go into effect until April 1, 1990, unless additional revenues are found. Moreover, any monies spent on the career ladder could potentially cut into the proposed 5.7 percent pay raise for teachers.

The state board of education last month endorsed phasing-in the career-ladder program statewide over the next three years, with no new monies going to teachers under the program until the 1992-93 school year. Teachers who are already participating in the pilot projects would be frozen at their current level in the career ladder until that time.

The board has also commissioned a study of the state’s existing salary schedule for teachers, but will not make a recommendation about pay raises until that study is completed in April.

Norma Turnage, a member of the board, said that the proposed, three-year implementation of the career ladder was designed to address fiscal concerns and to provide adequate training and preparation time for4teachers and evaluators.

‘Totally Unacceptable’

But Karen Garr, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said last week that both the Governor’s and the state board’s proposals are “totally unacceptable” to the union, which would like to see an immediate improvement in the basic salary schedule for teachers.

On Jan. 21, local union presidents voted 34,111 to 2,607 not to support the Career Development program, as proposed by the state board.

The weighted vote--in which local union presidents were given a set number of ballots to reflect their membership--sends a clear signal that the career-ladder experiment “was a failure,” according to Ms. Garr. The presidents of only 3 of the 15 pilots present voted for expansion, she noted.

“A ladder has to rest on a foundation,” said Ms. Garr. “The foundation in North Carolina is the state salary schedule and it’s in bad shape. We have been $3,000 behind the national average [for teachers] throughout this entire decade.”

The union, which represents two-thirds of the state’s teachers, voted instead to support a more equitable and competitive salary schedule for teachers and the creation of programs that encourage teachers to participate in decisionmaking at the school site.

‘Going To Hurt Us’

Both the Governor’s aides and lawmakers agree that the state’s salary schedule needs to be improved, but most doubt that significant gains will come this legislative session.

“There’s no room for a teacher pay raise,” said State Senator J. Richard Conder, Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee.

“I’m very upset about it myself,” he added. “The fact that we’re not going to be able to give teachers a raise is going to hurt us. ... We want education to be our number one priority in this state, and it’s going to look like we’re not putting our money where our mouths are.”

The new state superintendent of education--who has only been on the job two weeks--is caught in the crossfire. Superintendent Bob Etheridge believes that a salary increase for teachers is a “must,” according to his executive assistant, Tony Copeland. But he has not taken a firm position on the career-ladder program.

“The superintendent’s position is that he’s still evaluating the pilots,” said Mr. Copeland. “He wants to proceed with a studied and systematic and thoughtful approach to looking at the career ladder.”

Many Southern states that experimented with some form of performance-based pay moved forward too quickly, Mr. Copeland argued, “and the next thing you knew they were retreating and taking out everything they’d put in place.”

“We want to make sure that doesn’t happen in North Carolina.”

Positive Results

Ironically, North Carolina’s career-ladder program has been praised by outsiders for its “go slow” approach and its emphasis on program evaluation and revision.

Participation rates for teachers in most of the pilot districts exceed 95 percent. And 83 percent of the program’s funding goes directly to educators in the form of increased pay and benefits. As part of the program, participating districts are also pilot8ing a career-ladder program for administrators.

A study conducted by the state education department this fall compared students’ performance on the California Achievement Test in the pilot sites with those in 15 nonparticipating “matched” school districts. It found that improvements in test scores were greater and spread more evenly among both low- and high-achieving students in the pilot units.

Reactions from many of the local participants have also been positive.

“It is the very best thing for children,” said Linda Bryant, president of the Burlington Association of Educators, an affiliate of the ncae, “because if you improve teachers’ performance and let them know exactly what things they need to work on, you can’t help but improve students’ achievement.”

“I am strongly in favor of paying people who are talented what they are worth,” she added, “and I resent someone else on the faculty who doesn’t work as hard and doesn’t do as much getting the same money.”

Wayne Trogdon, superintendent of the Alexander County Public Schools, said, “We’ve had a very positive experience with career development. We have been able to reward outstanding teachers for doing excellent jobs in their classrooms, and we’ve also increased the opportunities for shared decisionmaking.”

“We should have been doing this for years,” he added.

‘Major Overhaul’

Nonetheless, lawmakers remain dubious about the program. Joe Mavretic, the new Speaker of the House, opposes any expansion of the program ''without a major overhaul,” according to his executive assistant, Tim Kent.

“We believe that the administration of the system we have right now is too expensive for the results we’re getting back,” Mr. Kent said. “It’s a lot more complex than is necessary.”

Representative C.R. Edwards, Democratic chairman of the House education committee, said many lawmakers think the program needs structural changes before it can be expanded statewide.

A comprehensive study of the program, commissioned by the General Assembly, is due early this month.

The ncae has cited a number of problems with the existing program. According to the union, the instrument used to evaluate teachers is inappropriate for experienced educators because of its rigidity. That same instrument recently received a generally positive review from a team of outside evaluators asked in by the General Assembly.

The union is also upset because a provision in the program that enables teachers to earn extra pay for extra work is only open to teachers on career level 2, and not to those on career level 1, who may perform the same functions for no pay.

The state board of education has deferred making any decision about whether to include the “extra pay for extra work” provision in a statewide program until it can determine how to deal with the equity problem. Ms. Turnage also said that it may revise the performance appraisal for more experienced teachers as part of implementing the top rung of the career-ladder program, known as career level 3.


Some of the most strident complaints against the program have come from teachers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County area, which instituted its own career ladder one year before the pilot program began.

The school district received national acclaim in 1984-85, when it became one of the first school systems in the nation to adopt a career-development plan for teachers.

But in recent years, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg program has had a rocky history. A new superintendent, who joined the district in 1987, created a blue-ribbon commission and an ongoing task force to address complaints about the program from teachers and administrators.

According to Kay Mitchell, director of career development for the district, most of the resulting changes were “procedural” in nature. She claims that since that time there has been “less frustration, less anger,” about the program.

But Vilma Leake, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Associationof Educators, said her union is interested in dismantling the career ladder and replacing it with something else. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which has some 4,000 teachers, is by far the largest participant in the pilot project.

Davis Bingham, immediate past-president of the Classroom Teachers Association of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and president of the Professional Educators of North Carolina, said both groups still endorse the “concept of the career ladder.”

But he is worried, he said, about a “bloated” bureaucracy for administering the program. And he does not believe it should be expanded without modifications.

Other educators question the accuracy of the recent ncae vote, in which local presidents were allowed to split their votes pro and con, based on a survey of their membership. Some presidents cast all of their votes one way, however, based on their own views.

Cynthia B. Zeger, a high-school teacher in Salisbury, N.C., which is one of the pilot sites, said union presidents whose districts were not in the pilot project may have been swayed by what they had heard, rather than what they knew about the program.

Just how effective the ncae’s opposition to the career ladder will be is uncertain.

“Ncae is in disarray,” said Mr. Monroe of the Governor’s office. “I see them having little impact.” But others noted that they are a politically aggressive group which could still sway legislators’ votes, particularly given the state’s budget crunch.

Meanwhile, participants in the pilot districts are divided about whether the program is ready to go statewide, with some advocating a carefully phased-in implementation schedule.

Career ladders are “expensive programs,” noted Lynn Cornett, associate director for school/college programs at the Southern Regional Education Board. But, she added, “I have not seen a state that has made the kind of commitment that Tennessee or South Carolina or North Carolina has made backing away from it; the money continues for those programs.”

For now, lawmakers predict, funding for the pilot districts is likely to continue. But anything else is an open question.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as In North Carolina, Career-Ladder Plan Nears a Crossroads