Students at Garinger High made strong gains on last year’s state exams, raising the school’s grade from a D to a C.
That combination of struggling students and strong growth would have qualified Principal Kelly Gwaltney for a new $10,000 state bonus ... except for one thing. Because the school also made strong growth the year before, when Gwaltney arrived with a mission to turn the east Charlotte school around, she doesn’t qualify.
The new bonus plan, part of a sweeping slate of changes to North Carolina principal pay, is designed to reward principals for helping students succeed and jump-start improvements at the schools that most need help. While most applaud the goals, the details have proven vexing – including a bonus plan that penalizes principals for too much student success.
The new rewards hinge on growth ratings, which are calculated by a private company based on students’ year-to-year progress on state exams. A school where most students fail state exams can still land in the top category, potentially qualifying the principal for the bonus, if its students showed bigger-than-expected gains.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had 44 schools hit the top growth mark this year, out of 164 that got ratings. That potentially put their principals in the pool for bonuses – $5,000 for schools that scored a C or higher in 2016 and $10,000 for the seven that had a D.
But 37 of the 44 schools – and five of the seven with a low grade – were disqualified because they exceeded growth two years in a row.
Only seven – West Charlotte High and Billingsville, Cornelius, Dilworth, Hickory Grove, Polo Ridge and Providence Spring elementary schools – hit the top mark this year after missing it in 2016. Billingsville and Hickory Grove had low enough marks in 2016 to bump up the bonus to $10,000.
The challenge: Turning around a low-performing school is not a quick fix. Virtually everyone who looks at school reform agrees it takes years for a strong leader with a squad of great teachers to wrestle with the low expectations and behavioral issues that often haunt schools serving the most disadvantaged students.
State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee, said last week he doesn’t recall the reason that principals were disqualified for two years of top growth, but he and other lawmakers are willing to take another look at the details of the plan.
“The year is not yet over,” Horn said. “We don’t have plenty of time, but we do have some time to get this straightened out.”
It’s a challenge that has flared up before: Paying educators for results, rather than experience and credentials, is popular in theory but tough to execute. In January the state awarded new teacher bonuses based on student scores in 2016, and were bombarded by questions about who qualified and who didn’t.
Horn said the principal pay scale was overdue for reform, but lawmakers wanted to get teacher compensation on track first. The state is still studying new ways to reward teachers for leadership and results, with CMS and five other districts getting grants for pilot programs.
“It seems like as many people as we talk to, we never talk to the right people, or enough people,” Horn said. “We are like a fireman in the middle of a forest fire with a squirt gun. The first thing we have to do is keep our hind end from getting burned off, so we put out the most immediate fire.”
The “exceeds growth” bonus is only one part of a complex package of bonuses and pay-scale changes that start taking effect for principals this year. Regardless of 2016 performance, principals whose schools are in the top 50 percent for growth in 2017 qualify for $1,000 to $5,000 bonuses, with the top payment going to those in the state’s top 5 percent.
CMS has been doing one-on-one counseling with principals about how the new plan is likely to hit their paychecks. A “hold harmless” provision in the state law means no one loses pay this year, when the new bonuses kick in. Beyond that, though, pay will depend on how the new state scale plays out and whether the CMS board adjusts its local supplement plan to offset possible losses.
Small “boutique” schools, which CMS sees as a promising way to boost achievement and keep families satisfied, pose special challenges. Because the new state scale is based largely on enrollment, principals at smaller schools could see their state pay plummet. And because the small CMS high schools located on Central Piedmont Community College campuses take only 11th and 12th graders they don’t qualify for a growth rating, making school leaders ineligible for the new bonuses.
The district has four such “middle college” campuses this year, including one that just opened in Huntersville. They’re part of a statewide push to create high schools that offer a tuition-free college experience, with some students earning an associate’s degree along with their diplomas. Graduation rates and college-ready scores on the ACT are high at the CMS middle college high schools.