Against All Odds

By Daniel Gursky — February 19, 1992 13 min read

OXFORD, N.C.--Every day, Michael Ward wears a button that says “BAU,” overlaid with a red slash, the universal symbol for “no.”

The button means “No more business as usual” an apt description of public education here in rural Granville County, where Mr. Ward serves as the superintendent of schools.

This school year, the district showed the tenacity of its commitment to Mr. Ward’s slogan. Its teachers, bucking the prevailing sentiment of their colleagues throughout the state, voted overwhelmingly last September to stick with a district plan that bases extra pay for school employees on meeting individual and school wide performance goals.

With North Carolina facing its worst fiscal crisis since the Depression, the state legislature had given 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; votes for such a plan meant teachers had no guarantee of a year-end bonus. Or districts could temporarily scrap their pay plans and use the money for across-the-board bonuses of up to $550 per certified employee.

The lawmakers had devised the alternatives because the state was unable to raise teacher salaries or fully fund the reform law, Senate Bill 2. Rather than increasing to 3 percent of district certified salaries, as it was scheduled to do, the funding for differentiated pay was stuck at 2 percent.

“I think most of us assumed that almost none [of the districts] would vote to keep their plans,” recalled John Doman, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which was instrumental in developing and promoting SB 2.

Mr. Doman was right. Teachers in 99 of 117 North Carolina school systems opted for the across-the-board bonuses; 11 districts kept their existing pay plans, and 7 others modified their plans.

In Granville County, teachers voted by 362 to 20 to keep a slightly modified version of their performance-based supplement plan.

“I knew that the lure of an across-the-board increase would be awfully strong, regardless of how committed our folks are,” Superintendent Ward said recently.

But much to Mr. Ward’s pleasure, there was no need to retire his button.

Some Would Have Been Left Out

For most North Carolina school districts, the 1990-91 school year provided their first experience with differentiated pay. The state has funded a career-ladder pilot project since 1985, but it involves only 16 districts. (These districts did not take part in last fall’s vote on differentiated pay.)

Most teachers in the state are used tea system in which the state sets basic teacher salaries and local districts augment those salaries with supplements--ranging from none at all in some counties tea few thousand dollars a year in more affluent areas. It was not surprising, then, that most districts voted this school year to return to what Mr. Ward might characterize as business as usual.

Granville County, by contrast, already had five years of experience with a locally financed plan far more ambitious than anything the state envisioned under the reform law.

Even without the SB 2 money, school employees here everyone from custodians and secretaries to principals and central-office administrators-can earn bonuses equaling up to 5 percent of their salaries, based on individual and school wide performance. The extra state money raises the potential bonuses to 6 percent.

Teachers here said the inclusive nature of Granville County’s supplement was a decisive factor in their support for continuing the plan.

“I think the main reason we kept it is because a lot of people would have been left out” by across-the-beard bonuses, said Pam Kearney, a teacher at Wilton Elementary School.

The state differentiated-pay money can be used only for state-paid, certified employees, so the county allocates local money to pay bonuses for noncertified staff members. Had they voted for an across-the-board increase, teachers would have received bonuses, but support-staff workers-about 20 percent of the district’s employees-would have gotten nothing.

“We thought about Chapter 1 people, we thought about teacher assistants,” said Kathy Keith, who teaches at Butner-Stem Elementary School. “At our school, we strive to get along. And I couldn’t work with them knowing that I voted they not get money that I think they deserve.”

In addition, teachers and other staff members said they have grown so accustomed to the annual process of setting goals and trying to achieve them that they cannot imagine changing their system.

“The last six years we’ve been working on reform for bettering education,” said Ron Joyner, a teacher at South Granville High School, “and accountability has been the big thing.”

“We don’t want people to say we just got a handout,” he said. “We can show we are accountable for the dollars we get.”

Impetus for Change

Many conversations about the Granville County schools include references, like Mr. Joyner’s, to “the last six years.”

For years, school and school-beard officials here would ask the county commissioners to fund a local pay supplement for teachers. They argued that Granville teachers were moving after only a few years to wealthier neighboring districts, such as those around Raleigh and Durham, that offered generous salary supplements.

For years, the county commissioners turned down those requests.

The turning point came not through a windfall of new revenue to pay higher teacher salaries. Though some new manufacturing firms have moved into the area in recent years, joining tobacco farming as economic mainstays for Granville County’s 35,000 residents, the county remains relatively poor.

Rather, the impetus for change was the arrival of G. Thomas Houlihan as superintendent in 1985.

Along with initiating an array of reforms in curriculum and other areas, Mr. Houlihan recast the pay proposal so that the supplement would be based on performance. The pay plan, which enjoyed strong support from the community and from business leaders, won the county commissioners’ approval in 1986.

Mr. Houlihan has since moved on to nearby Johnston County, one of the other school districts that voted to keep its differentiated-pay plan. The current superintendent, Mr. Ward, who served as a principal and an assistant superintendent under Mr. Houlihan, has carried on and expanded the movement for change started by his predecessor.

Teacher salaries in Granville County have risen from the basic state level to among North Carolina’s highest--if employees earn the full supplement. Mr. Ward gets extra satisfaction from noting that teacher migration is no longer a problem: Many teachers now want to move from neighboring counties into Granville.

The notion of differentiated pay for teachers has been vigorously opposed by some education groups, most notably the National Education Association, which says all teachers should be paid more. The N.E.A. has also criticized merit-pay type plans because of their potential to pit teachers against each other as they compete for bonuses.

The union’s state affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, urged its members to vote last fail for the across-the-beard bonuses. But the Granville County association supported the continuation of differentiated pay.

While about 25 states offer some form of teacher-incentive program, the Granville County plan is one of only a few nationwide that include student performance among the criteria for individual teacher bonuses. (See story below.)

Setting Goals

Because the Granville County commissioners had long declined to approve an across-the-board pay supplement for teachers, the choice here six years ago was between no supplement and one based on performance. That situation made Mr. Houlihan’s plan more acceptable to teachers, who really had nothing to lose, Mr. Ward pointed out.

Some teachers were suspicious at first, declining to try for bonuses. Now, Mr. Ward said, everyone participates in the goals-setting process, and most do so enthusiastically.

At the beginning of the school year, every teacher here 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 of Granville County’s schools likewise 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.

All goals are discussed before they are approved. Teachers work with the principal and a central-office “broker'; the principal consults with the superintendent after getting staff approval for the schoolwide goal.

Some teachers earn a portion of their bonus based on longevity: 1 percent for five years of service and 2 percent for 10 years or more. A few extra duties, such as student-council adviser, computer coordinator, and before-school child-care coordinator, also carry a 1 percent bonus. In cases where teachers are already eligible for 3 percent, their bonus for the 4th percent has to be based on an instructional goal.

School Wide goals are worth an additional 2 percent. This school year, the plan was changed from a straight 2 percent bonus for reaching a goal to 1 percent for setting the goal and making a concerted effort to reach it, and 1 percent for actually achieving it. Every employee at the school, not just teachers, receives the bonus.

90 Percent Earn Bonuses

Almost no one in Granville County refers to the salary supplement as merit pay. Superintendent Ward said he makes the distinction because the district’s teachers are evaluated and rewarded based on their own goals and results; they are not competing for a limited number of bonuses, as is often the case with merit pay.

Andre Henry, the principal at Northern Granville Middle School, said he had to overcome some negative notions about merit pay he brought with him from New York City, where he was 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,” Mr. Henry said. “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,” added Mr. Henry, who is also rewarded for reaching his own goals and that of his school. “But I haven’t seen any of that.”

While some merit-pay plans restrict bonuses to a limited number of teachers--say 20 percent or 30 per~ cent--a full 90 percent of Granville County’s teachers earn the entire 4 percent individual bonus. And 10 of the district’s 12 schools earned their 2 percent school wide bonus last year.

With such a high proportion receiving the full bonus, there is some temptation to question the difficulty of the goals teachers and schools set for themselves.

But Mr. Ward and others have quick explanations for the high figure.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that 90 percent get it,” the superintendent said. “if salary is tied to improvement in an area of concern, you’re going to work hard to make sure it happens.”

James Lumpkins, the county school-beard chairman, is confident bonuses are not being awarded too easily. “Mike Ward would not give his mother that supplement if she did not earn it,” he said.

‘It’s Pushed Us’

The bottom line in any performance-based pay plan, Mr. Ward acknowledged, should be achievement by the county’s 6,300 students. According to his figures, test scores in the county have risen steadily in the past six years, with students last year scoring at their highest or second-highest level ever in 15 of the 22 measures North Carolina compiles in its state education report card.

Scores on the S.A.T. have also gone up, according to the district, and the number of dropouts has gone down, from 160 in 1985-86 to 99 last year.

“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,” Mr. Ward said.

Mary Lou Bowen, who teaches at Stovall-Shaw Elementary School, said the goals can do more than just increase test scores.

Noting that her school set a goal of improving science instruction, Ms. Bowen said: “Our science fair has grown, and our children are more excited about it. It’s pushed us to do more hands-on activities with the children.”

“They are really the ones who benefit from our goal,” she said.

Other teachers here added that it would be a mistake to look at their support for performance-based pay without also considering the many other reforms going on in the district and the extensive degree of teacher involvement at all levels.

“The supplement is just one of a multitude of things,” said 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,” Mr. Brooks said. “In my first meeting--l was here just two days--Mike Ward came and actually asked the faculty for input about the budget. I was dumbfounded.”

‘Plan, React, Ventilate’

Mr. Brooks serves on what is known as the superintendent’s council, a group of 14 teachers representing every school that meets monthly with Mr. Ward. Many of the items they discuss come directly from teachers through an agenda form available to anyone with a question or concern.

At a recent meeting, the agenda items included teacher evaluations, staff development, the possibility of year-round schools, and loose door knobs at a new school.

Mr. Ward receives agenda items in advance so he can prepare responses, which are discussed and then circulated to all school staff members in the council’s minutes. The group also discusses everything from the district budget to new goals and programs for the schools.

“We can talk about anything, and we do,” said Laura Elliott, who is serving on the superintendent’s council this year as the county’s teacher of the year.

Mr. Ward’s calendar is filled with similar meetings with other groups: principals, parents, student leaders, business and industry representatives, teaching assistants, and various members of the school’s support staff. The meetings reflect his creed that everyone involved with the schools needs the chance to “plan, react to new ideas, and ventilate.”

Each school also has its own faculty council of administrators, parents, and teacher and staff representatives. “Site-based decision making acknowledges that the stake holders in decisions are owed some right to participate,” Mr. Ward said. “And given that right, they’ll make the decision work.”

Teachers play a central role in many of the critical decisions in schools, including the hiring of administrators, teachers, and other staff members.

Every school has lead teachers, who receive a $1,200 stipend for taking on extra duties and helping develop new ideas for their schools. And teacher initiatives have led to some of the district’s reform measures, including changes in curriculum, assessment, and the structure of the school day.

‘We Want Successful Kids’

The performance-based pay system, like everything else in the Granville County schools, is constantly reviewed, and Mr. Ward anticipates some changes in the next couple of years.

The superintendent said he wants to get away from using one years test scores to guide the next years goals. Instead, he said, the system should emphasize performance trends over time and focus on entire schools more than individual classrooms.

In addition, Mr. Ward said, teachers and schools should concentrate more on goals involving the process of learning in addition to those aimed at boosting test scores.

“That’s not to downplay the importance of results,” Mr. Ward said. “Ultimately, the results ought to tell us if the process is getting better.”

“But the bottom line on all this,” he added, “is not that we want better test scores; it’s that we want successful kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1992 edition of Education Week as Against All Odds