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.