A computer glitch has mistakenly caused some North Carolina third-grade teachers to be told they were getting thousands of dollars in bonuses when in fact they are not. The glitch also is delaying millions of dollars in state bonuses for third-grade teachers who do deserve them.
The General Assembly set aside $10 million in bonuses to give to third-grade teachers based on how their students performed on the state's end-of-grade reading test last school year. But the January bonus checks were delayed after the state Department of Public Instruction discovered an error resulting in some third-grade teachers being mistakenly identified as qualifying for the bonus.
"NCDPI has informed the General Assembly of the issues related to the third-grade reading bonus and that (school districts) and charter schools will not likely meet the requirement to pay this bonus in the month of January, given the revisions were not completed until the end of January," Tom Tomberlin, DPI director of educator recruitment and support, said in a Jan. 28 memo to school districts. "NCDPI understands that teachers will be disappointed to learn that they are no longer eligible for the ... bonuses."
According to state records, $9.8 million in reading bonuses will be distributed to 2,717 third-grade teachers across the state. The bonus glitch was first reported Wednesday on Justin Parmenter's blog. Parmenter is a language arts teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and critic of the state's teacher bonus system.
Now imagine receiving a letter in December saying that you'd earned bonuses worth several thousand dollars," Parmenter wrote.
"You make plans to pay off medical bills, you go ahead and book a spring break flight − maybe even quit a part-time job in anticipation of the windfall. Then weeks later you're told that you actually didn't earn anything − but the teacher next door did. What's that going to do to collaborative spirit?"
Wake County was told about the issue before third-grade teachers were notified they were getting bonuses or money was distributed, according to Lisa Luten, a district spokeswoman. A total of $1 million in bonuses will be given to 278 Wake teachers.
In 2017, the state began giving merit bonuses for teachers based on the performance of their students. It's now grown across multiple grade levels to cover $38.7 million in state funding this year. Some educators argue that teachers should be getting raises and not competing for bonuses. But the Republican-led state legislature has pushed for the merit bonuses for teachers and for principals.
"I can understand how there might be opposition to paying excellent teachers for great work in a socialist country like North Korea, but I don't understand why unions like the NCAE would oppose paying excellent teachers big bonuses in America," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a statement in 2018.
For many of the bonuses, the state contracts with Cary-based SAS Institute to calculate value-added ratings – that is, how much of students' year-to-year progress on exams can be attributed to the teacher, The News & Observer previously reported. That system is considered fairer than bonuses based on student proficiency, which is influenced by the advantages or disadvantages children bring from home.
For third-grade reading, teachers qualified for bonuses if their value-added score for their students reading exams was in the top 25% statewide or in their school district. Teachers can qualify for both bonuses, giving them up to $7,000 a year.
But on Jan. 10, Tomberlin sent districts a memo saying the third-grade reading growth results were under final review. He told districts and charter schools to not process any payments related to third-grade teacher reading bonuses until further bonuses. He said that the other teacher bonuses were approved for payment.
In the Jan. 28 update, Tomberlin said DPI confirmed that a coding error was found in the third-grade reading data that was sent to SAS. He said that when SAS was asked to re-run the EVAAS ratings it was determined that there were changes to teacher scores.
"These changes to third-grade reading growth indices mean that some teachers who were previously identified as eligible ... are no longer eligible," Tomberlin said.
He also said that some teachers previously deemed ineligible are now eligible.
Tomberlin said that the data was updated and that the bonus money will be given to the districts and charter schools for distribution to teachers.
Parmenter blamed the errors on SAS. But Trent Smith, a spokesman for SAS, and Graham Wilson, a spokesman for DPI, said SAS was not at fault for the error.
"The fact that SAS wasn't the first to notice the error raises important questions about whether this is the first time the wrong teachers were identified as having earned the bonuses," Parmenter writes. "The mixup also presents a great opportunity to revisit whether this is the best way for North Carolina to be spending $39 million a year."
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