CHCCS: Professional Dev’t As Alternative To “Merit Pay”?

Forcella speaking at a press conference at the new Northside Elementary, before the start of the school year.

CHAPEL HILL – We always think of the classroom as a place where kids go to learn—but Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools superintendent Tom Forcella says he wants it to be a place where teachers go to learn as well.

And as controversy still rages over teacher salaries in North Carolina, Forcella says a focus on faculty training could provide a better alternative to the much-maligned system of “merit pay.”

“As public schools–and it’s not just here, I’ve worked in a number of different public school settings–we really don’t do a good job with training and developing our own people,” he says. “We have some early release, we may have one or two professional development days, and in the middle we may talk about it a little bit, but it’s not truly embedded in what they do. We know there’s got to be a better way.”

Improving professional development is one of the five overarching goals of the district’s new long-range plan, which school officials will implement over the next five years. Forcella says it’s an especially pressing need, as teachers are often thrown into classes without much training—and the most inexperienced ones often get the hardest jobs.

“We have new teachers who come into our profession and oftentimes–especially at the secondary level–get the most difficult classes,” he says. “You wouldn’t see someone in the medical profession, new to surgery, getting the most difficult surgeries in their first time out.”

Among other things, the district will seek to develop new training programs for teachers, including online and small-group work.

But Forcella says he’s particularly excited about this objective in part because the ultimate goal is more far-reaching. The district’s long-range plan includes a directive to “create a model for career and financial advancement based on instructional excellence and professional growth”—or, in other words, to base promotions and pay raises partly on a teacher’s commitment to professional development and improving her performance in the classroom.

“Personally I feel that our current salary schedules in schools are antiquated,” Forcella says. “They’re based on total years of experience, and what we’re envisioning is a different way, that’s somehow rewarding an individual’s desire to get better at what they do, going through some sort of a training and development program that’s really tailored to their individual needs.”

That’s in contrast to the current “merit pay” plan at the state level, which largely maintains the existing tenure-based pay scale and offers bonuses for outstanding performance. Forcella says he agrees that the current salary scale needs reform, but “merit pay” systems generally don’t work—not only because they’re too expensive, but also because they assume only a certain percentage of teachers will be “outstanding.”

“Even with the proposal now that the governor’s put forward, where there’s a finite amount of money (and) so many teachers can get the merit pay–I guess it’s 25 percent–so what if 30 percent of our teachers are outstanding?” Forcella says. “It doesn’t seem to make sense at all. If the goal is to have everyone be outstanding, well, you can’t keep limiting the number–so eventually you’re going to run out of money.”

Forcella’s plan, by contrast, would restructure the current salary schedule—no additional money needed—to reward teachers who demonstrate a commitment to professional development.

“The legislature is really committed to the state implementing a merit pay system…(but) I’m hoping they’ll allow some flexibility to local districts to create a different model,” he says.

Whether that will happen is debatable, of course: local officials, including school officials, have been criticizing the General Assembly all year for reducing local autonomy, not expanding it.

Still, Forcella says a renewed focus on professional development will go a long way toward improving education in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, even if it can’t be tied to compensation—though that remains the ultimate goal.

“We’re really excited about moving forward with this one, we’ll be working on this over the next several months…and our hope is, in the end, that this will be a model that might be good for the entire state in moving forward with really rethinking how we reward teachers financially,” he says.

You can read the district’s long-range plan in full at this link.

In New Long-Range Plan, CHCCS Adopts “Growth Mindset”

Forcella addresses reporters in Northside Elementary School’s library.

CHAPEL HILL – Classes are now underway at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, and with the start of a new school year comes the launch of the district’s new long-range improvement plan – all centered around a new educational philosophy.

Click here to view the long-range plan.

“We’re excited to have a new vision and a new long-range plan that will guide us for the next five years and beyond,” says CHCCS superintendent Tom Forcella. That plan – developed out of two years of conversations between administrators, teachers, students and community leaders – is comprised of 28 strategies to achieve five overarching goals, Forcella says, “all built around what we call a ‘growth mindset.'”

The idea of a “growth mindset” derives from the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her 2006 book Mindset, Dweck identified two opposing viewpoints about ability: on the one hand, a “fixed” mindset which holds that our talents and abilities are innate; on the other, a “growth” mindset which holds that we develop our abilities through experience and hard work. Most people believe our abilities come from both, to varying degrees – natural talent as well as hard work – but Dweck suggests that people who place more emphasis on the “growth” side tend to be more successful in life.

Forcella says that insight has significant implications for education.

“(This mindset believes) that all children can learn at much higher levels, that intelligence is not stagnant, and that there can be growth – significant growth – of all of our children given the right kind of instruction, with effort on the part of the students, effort on the part of our teachers, and the right amount of time to learn,” he says.

Among other things, translating the growth mindset into the classroom means moving away from fixed labels (like IQ) that peg students as ‘college material’ or ‘not college material’ at an early age. Research has shown that those labels affect the expectations teachers place on students – as well as the expectations students place on themselves – and those expectations in turn determine how well students end up performing.

Beyond that, Forcella says the new mindset also encourages teachers to move away from rote recitation and other top-down approaches – in favor of interactive, student-driven methods that motivate kids not only to think for themselves, but also to become aware that they can.

“What we’re trying to do,” he says, “is (to) train our teachers to ask the probing kinds of questions to get children to think, to have children challenging each other’s thinking in their classrooms, so that they will internalize the fact that (they) can get smarter.”

And since the “growth mindset” theory offers an explanation for why certain individuals perform better than others, Forcella says its use in the classroom could go a long way toward eliminating – or at least reducing – the district’s much-discussed achievement gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students.

“We think that with this vision in mind and this kind of thinking, we will see significant increases in our student achievement, and especially for our traditionally underserved populations,” he says.

That’s a concern for all teachers and administrators in the district – including Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan, who says the “growth” philosophy will be evident in every classroom.

“We will make sure that we’re always using the growth mindset as our guiding principle, to ensure that all students are learning to their potential,” she says. “And we know that all students can learn, given the right instruction and the right time.”

Closing the achievement gap is one of the five goals laid out in the district’s new long-range plan. The other four are: “instructional excellence focused on thinking and problem solving,” a culture that encourages “innovation (and) risk-taking,” a renewed focus on professional development, and an improved system of assessment and accountability.