Not Without Merit
Every day, Michael Ward wears a button that says "BAU,'' with a red slash through the letters. It's short for "no business as usual,'' and it's an apt description of public education in Granville County, N.C., where Ward serves as superintendent of schools.
Teachers in all of the district's 12 schools have picked up on the message; some even display their own version of the button. "They think it's fine to ask 'why,' if something's restricting them,'' Ward says of his teachers. "We've cultivated an assurance here that questions are OK.''
At a time when money for public education is increasingly scarce, Granville County provides a textbook example of how a district can do more with less. The relatively poor, rural county with 6,500 students has undertaken more ambitious reforms than many wealthy districts 10 times its size. The efforts range from a nongraded elementary school with alternative forms of assessment and a high school that completely restructured its school day to site-based decisionmaking at every school.
But none of Granville's reforms is more controversial than its 6-year-old bonus-forperformance plan. This departure from the safe and predictable is flourishing in the county at a time when the idea of bonuses and merit pay for individual teachers has come and gone in many parts of the country. Granville County has even taken the concept further than most of its advocates dared to venture: Everyone from custodians and secretaries to principals and central office administrators can earn bonuses equaling up to 6 percent of their salaries if they meet individual and school performance goals.
Last September, the district had a chance to show the tenacity of its commitment to these performance-based bonuses. With North Carolina facing its worst fiscal crisis since the Depression, the state legislature was unable to increase teacher salaries, so the lawmakers gave school districts a choice: Teachers could vote to keep the differentiated-pay plans their districts had developed a year earlier as part of a sweeping education reform initiative-- such a vote would not guarantee all teachers a year-end bonus--or they could choose to scrap their pay plans temporarily and use the money for across-the-board bonuses of up to $550 per certified employee.
"I think most of us assumed that almost none [of the districts] would vote to keep their plans,'' says John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina and a leading promoter of school reform in the state. He was right. Teachers in 99 of 117 North Carolina school districts opted for across-the-board bonuses; 11 districts kept their existing pay plans, and seven others approved modified plans.
Granville's teachers bucked the prevailing sentiment, voting 362 to 20 to keep their performancebased supplement plan. "I knew that the lure of an across-the-board increase would be awfully strong, regardless of how committed our folks are,'' Ward recalls. But he also knew the county's teachers have gotten used to doing things differently from most other districts in the state. As Dornan puts it: "Granville County is one of the only places in North Carolina where you can say they've really turned the corner in school reform. There's a real cultural change that has taken place.''
Granville County seems like an unlikely hotbed for education reform. It's a land of Baptist churches, country music, and restaurants with twice as many tables for smokers as for nonsmokers. Imposing Victorian mansions stand just down the road from run-down log cabins. Although some new manufacturing firms have moved into the area in recent years, joining tobacco and other farming as economic mainstays for the county's 35,000 residents, Granville still ranks in the bottom half of North Carolina counties in per capita income.
But the community's support for education is unmistakable. Last year, when the county commissioners proposed freezing the schools' budget, so many people showed up to push for more education funding that the crowd spilled out of the meeting room. The commissioners eventually increased the budget by 5 percent.
County voters have also shown a willingness to back up their words with cash. While school systems throughout the country have found it difficult in recent years to sell their citizens on the need for more money, Granville's voters passed an $8.15 million bond issue by a 3-1 margin in November 1990. Construction is now under way to improve the facilities at eight schools, including major renovations at four of them. An attractive new $6.5 million middle school that opened two years ago looks more like a corporate headquarters than a school; its state-of-theart auditorium is the pride of the community.
Things haven't always been so rosy in Granville County. The turning point for education came in 1985. That was the year Tom Houlihan arrived as superintendent, bringing with him an array of reforms--including the performance-based salary supplement--and an openness to teacher involvement and initiative.
Before Houlihan's arrival, school and school board officials had for years asked the county commissioners to fund a local pay supplement to augment the basic teacher salary set by the state. They argued that Granville was losing good teachers after only a few years to wealthier neighboring districts around Raleigh and Durham that offered generous salary supplements. For years, the county commissioners turned down those requests.
Unlike previous superintendents, Houlihan wouldn't take no for an answer. He recast the pay proposal so that supplements would be based on performance. His plan enjoyed the strong support of local citizens and the business community, which even raised some money to help pay for the first bonuses, and won the commissioners' approval in 1986. As a result, teacher salaries in Granville County have risen from the basic state level to among North Carolina's highest--if employees earn the full supplement.
Houlihan has since moved on to nearby Johnston County, one of the few other districts that voted last fall to keep its differentiated-pay plan, but Ward has carried on and expanded the movement for change since taking over the district's top job last school year. He proudly notes that teacher migration is no longer a problem: In fact, many teachers now want to move from neighboring county school systems to Granville's.
Teacher-led initiatives, a hallmark of Granville County's schools, really took off back in 1987 when the county participated in a 3-year lead teacher and school restructuring project initiated by the state. Based largely on the recommendations set forth by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, the three-county pilot project encouraged schools to move decisionmaking to the building level and give teachers a say in all aspects of running the school. The project also freed districts from many state regulations that might inhibit innovation.
Since the pilot project ended, Granville County has expanded the lead-teacher concept to all its schools. The jobs lead teachers perform vary from school to school because the entire staff works together to develop their job descriptions. It also chooses them. Those selected serve for two years and receive a $1,200 annual stipend. Much more than department heads who handle a load of extra paperwork, lead teachers are expected to coordinate staff development, provide feedback to other teachers, write grant proposals, and, most important, look into ways to improve their school's curriculum. "Basically,'' says Mary Cridlebaugh, one of eight lead teachers at South Granville High School, "we do whatever needs to be done.''
One of the district's most striking lead-teacherinspired reforms took place at South Granville High. When the lead teachers there sat down three years ago and outlined new academic requirements for students, they realized there was no way to fit everything into the old school day. So, with the administration's blessing and support--Ward was the school's principal at the time--they completely restructured the schedule. They got rid of the traditional sixperiod day and put a four-period day in its place; so instead of meeting daily for 55 minutes, classes are 90 minutes long and meet every other day. This means that students can take eight classes at a time, two more than before.
The new schedule has meant more work for teachers, but it has also brought unanticipated benefits. Louis Gotlib, a science and lead teacher, says the greater number of periods allows the 700-student school to offer a variety of classes normally available only in much larger schools. Science is not required after the 10th grade, but almost 90 percent of the school's 11th and 12th graders enroll in elective science-oriented classes. In addition to the traditional courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, the school has been able to offer such courses as environmental studies, fish and wildlife management, and practical chemistry, which requires less math than typical chemistry courses. "We can appeal to a wider range of interests,'' Gotlib says.
With 90-minute classes, teachers have had to rethink how they use time. The longer classes are a boon for lab work and projects, Gotlib explains, but "it's hard to lecture for 90 minutes, much less be good at it.'' The new schedule offers fewer hours for each class per semester, but with less passing time between classes and fewer wasted minutes at the beginning and end of periods, the difference is not as great as it might seem. To accommodate teachers' need for more preparation time, two of the eight periods are earmarked for planning.
Lead teachers don't just attend to academic matters; they also look after the overall needs of their schools, including those of their nonteaching colleagues. For example, lead teachers at South Granville High recently decided to use some discretionary money that could have gone toward academics to buy a high-speed buffer to keep their custodians happy. And the custodians, for their part, don't just keep the place clean. They're full partners in an effort to keep students in school, volunteering to work with youngsters who show signs that they might quit.
Another teacher-led restructuring effort is under way at West Oxford Elementary School. Here, some of the county's smallest charges, students in grades K-2, are grouped together into what the staff calls "cotts''--cooperative teaching teams. Superintendent Ward's description of the school's atmosphere as "fun with a purpose'' seems fitting in a building that contains almost no orderly rows of desks.
Today, students are busy dancing and playing in the gymnasium with a colorful ball twice their size, building their own props for plays they will present in drama club, and practicing their vocabulary on computers. Others are reading and drawing in a media center that features separate areas such as a log cabin, an almost life-size dinosaur, and a replica of a space shuttle. This being the 100th day of school, many of the day's activities relate to 100.
"We don't know what 1st grade and 2nd grade material is here,'' says teacher Kathy Speed. "The textbook doesn't dictate what we do; we try to let the students make a lot of choices for themselves.'' The school's "continuous-progress curriculum'' frees teachers to focus on each child's abilities rather than his or her chronological age and lets students progress at the appropriate pace. Students are assessed primarily through nontraditional methods such as performance tasks, portfolios, and teacher observations; retention only becomes an issue when the youngsters are ready to pass on to 3rd grade.
In North Carolina, teachers' basic salary is set by the state. Local districts can choose to augment those salaries with supplements, which range from nothing in some counties to a few thousand dollars a year in more affluent ones. For most districts, the 1990-91 school year provided their first experience with differentiated pay. It wasn't surprising, then, that teachers in most districts voted last fall to abandon the unfamiliar differentiated-pay plans and return to what Ward might characterize as business as usual.
Granville County's performance-based supplement is far more ambitious than anything envisioned in the state's reform law; in Granville, state money provided through the law merely raises the amount of potential bonuses from 5 percent to 6 percent. Granville teachers say the inclusive nature of the county's supplement was a decisive factor in their support for continuing the plan. The state money can go only to state-paid, certified employees, so the county kicks in its own money to pay bonuses for noncertified staff. Had they voted to abandon the plan in favor of across-the-board increases, the county's teachers would have received bonuses, but the support staff--about 20 percent of the district's employees--would have gotten nothing.
"I think the main reason we kept it is because a lot of people would have been left out'' by the across-theboard bonuses, says Pam Kearney, a teacher at Wilton Elementary School. Adds Kathy Keith, who teaches at Butner-Stem Elementary School: "We thought about Chapter 1 people, we thought about teacher assistants. At our school, we strive to get along. And I couldn't work with them knowing that I voted that they not get money that I think they deserve.''
Teachers also say they've grown so accustomed to the annual process of setting goals and trying to achieve them that they can't imagine changing their system. "The last six years we've been working on reform for bettering education,'' says Ron Joyner, a teacher at South Granville High, "and accountability has been the big thing. We don't want people to say we just got a handout. We can show we are accountable for the dollars we get.''
Early on, many teachers weren't at all happy about the bonus plan. "That first year, some teachers said, 'It won't work; we don't want to be part of it,'' recalls James Lumpkins, chairperson of the Granville County school board. "But it was real when the first of June came along and some people got those checks. The next year, everybody jumped on the bandwagon.''
Andre Henry, principal at Northern Granville Middle School, says he had to overcome some negative notions about merit pay he brought with him from New York City, where he had been a union leader. "When they were talking about a performance-based supplement here, it was the same term to me as merit pay, and a flag shot up in my head,'' he says. "Since I've been involved with it, however, I've been very pleased. I thought there might be some problems with people not working together and just trying to meet their own goals, but I haven't seen any of that.''
Like his teachers, Henry establishes goals for himself at the beginning of the school year. Each teacher sets four individual goals, one of which must relate to instruction. Teachers are encouraged to develop a mixture of personal and professional goals dealing with student performance, teaching methods, staff development, and the like. Staff members at each school also develop and vote on a schoolwide goal relating to student performance. Schools have set such goals as improving reading or mathematics scores or reducing the dropout rate.
Teachers can earn a portion of their bonus for longevity--1 percent for five years of service and 2 percent for 10 years. They can add another 1 percent for taking on extra duties, such as advising the student council, coordinating computers, or overseeing before-school child care. If teachers are already eligible for 3 percent, their bonus for the 4th percent is based on an individual instructional goal. Schoolwide goals are worth another 2 percent. This school year, before teachers voted, the plan was changed from a straight 2 percent bonus for reaching the goal to 1 percent for setting the goal and making a concerted effort to reach it and 1 percent for actually achieving it.
Ward says there is a difference between what most people have come to think of as merit pay and the bonuses his school system offers: Granville County's teachers are evaluated and rewarded based on their own goals and results; they aren't competing against each other for a limited number of bonuses, as is often the case with merit pay. In fact, a full 90 percent of the county's teachers earn the individual bonus. And teachers at 10 of the district's 12 schools received their 2 percent schoolwide bonus last year.
With such a high proportion earning the full bonus, there's a temptation to question the difficulty of the goals teachers and schools set for themselves. But Ward and others have ready explanations for the high figure. "I don't think it's surprising that 90 percent get it,'' the superintendent says. "If salary is tied to improvement in an area of concern, you're going to work hard to make sure it happens. It's a pretty uncommitted staff member that doesn't earn anything.''
School board chair Lumpkins is confident bonuses are not being awarded too easily. "Mike Ward,'' he says, "would not give his mother that supplement if she did not earn it.''
Visitors to Oxford, the Granville County seat, can see the latest figure on the district's dropout rate at the turnoff to College Street, the road that leads past large, stately houses to the modest red-brick school district offices. Give Yourself an EDGE (Education Does Guarantee Employment), reads the sign on a building at the intersection. And it reveals that, as of late January, 40 students have dropped out of Granville schools this year, 10 fewer than at the same time last year.
Ward believes it is figures like this one that show the county's reform efforts are working. Besides the declining number of dropouts--160 dropped out during the 1985-86 school year, 99 last year--test scores in the county have risen steadily over the past six years. Last year, students scored at their highest or second-highest level ever in 15 of the 22 measures North Carolina compiles in its state education report card. SAT scores have also gone up.
"I credit, and I think a lot of people credit, the performance-based supplement with providing staff a structure and an incentive to improve areas of concern with student performance,'' Ward says.
But teachers warn against attributing too much of the district's success to the performance-based bonuses. Other changes taking place in the district and the extensive teacher involvement in decisionmaking, they say, are also major factors. "The supplement is just one of a multitude of things,'' says Daryl Brooks, a teacher at J.F. Webb High School. "I came here two years ago from a district in Virginia where teachers had no input into anything. In my first meeting--I was here just two days--Mike Ward came and actually asked the faculty for input about the budget. I was dumbfounded.''
At the school level, decisionmaking involves "faculty councils'' or "leadership teams'' of administrators, teachers, and noncertified staff members. Teachers also sit on committees that helped pick the county's five new principals this year, and they have a say in hiring teachers and other staff members. "Site-based decisionmaking acknowledges that the stakeholders in decisions are owed some right to participate,'' Ward says. "And given that right, they'll make the decision work.''
Teachers' influence extends to the central office, as well. Brooks and 13 other teachers representing every school serve on what is known as the superintendent's council, which meets monthly with Ward. "We can talk about anything, and we do,'' says Laura Elliott, who is on the council this year as the county's teacher of the year. The group also includes a representative of the local teachers' union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Ward says that having this union representative on the panel has helped prevent friction that might have otherwise arisen over some district policies--such as the pay-forperformance plan--that the NEA has traditionally opposed.
Much of what the superintendent's council discusses comes directly from other teachers through an agenda form available to anyone with a question or concern. At a recent meeting, the council talked about a wide variety of topics, including teacher evaluations, staff development, year-round scheduling, and loose door knobs at a new school. Ward receives the agenda items in advance so he can prepare responses, which are discussed and then circulated to all staff members through the council's minutes. The group also confers on such matters as the district budget and school goals and programs.
Ward's calendar is filled with similar meetings with other groups of school employees: principals, parents, student leaders, business and industry representatives, teaching assistants, and various other members of the schools' support staffs. The meetings reflect the superintendent's creed that everyone in the schools needs the chance to "plan, react to new ideas, and ventilate.'' Twice a year, once at midyear and again at year's end, Ward distributes a survey that asks district employees to rate him anonymously on 40 different job descriptors.
Granville's apparent successes have not bred complacency among Ward and his teachers; they continue to explore ways to improve. The district, for example, is reviewing and revising its entire curriculum to make sure its schools are preparing students adequately for a changing world. And Ward wants to get away from using one year's standardized test scores to guide the next year's goals. Instead, he says, the system should emphasize performance trends over time and focus more on entire schools than on individual classrooms.
In addition, Ward wants teachers and schools to concentrate more on the process of learning than on goals aimed at boosting test scores. "That's not to downplay the importance of test results,'' he says. "Ultimately, the results ought to tell us if the process is getting better. But the bottom line on all this is not that we want better test scores; it's that we want successful kids.''
There's some concern in Granville that the continuing recession may slow the momentum of reform. The county has never had a lot of its own money, and for the past two years, North Carolina has failed to fully fund state reform initiatives. That sends a disquieting message to teachers, who expect lawmakers to back up policy changes with money.
Despite the hard times, Lumpkins, the school board chairperson, believes the county's leaders will do what they can to support the schools. In fact, the county commissioners "would probably be run out of town,'' he says, if they proposed cutting the teachers' pay supplements.
In any case, Granville County schools will stick with what has brought results. "We try to let the teachers make the decisions,'' Lumpkins notes. "We know there's nothing magic about a teacher making a decision. If they do something wrong, chalk it up and try something else. You can't condemn when you're trying to improve. You've got to experiment, and that's what we're trying to do in Granville County.''