It took 18 months, but the Wake County school board has finally adopted a strategic plan that's supposed to guide the operations of the school district.
The document, which was proposed by Superintendent Tony Tata and required by AdvancED, went through multiple revisions to get as much support as possible from the school board. The final version, which includes various targets, won bipartisan support on Tuesday.
But questions about the level of autonomy that Central Office should give to schools and the role of performance pay/merit pay for teachers kept the vote from being unanimous.
One of the points of contention was Tata's desire to use Managed Performance Empowerment (MPE). In a nutshell, higher performing schools will get more autonomy than lower performing schools.
"At one end of the MPE continuum, school‐based management and decision making are diminished while district monitoring and oversight of instructional practice is increased to better support low‐performing schools," according to pg. 9 of the plan. "At the other end of the continuum, empowerment and high degrees of flexibility are offered to high‐performing schools, with the expectation that they remain high performing. This encourages all schools to assume full ownership for student performance, exhibit better decision‐making at all levels, establish more innovative and flexible approaches for resolving problems and challenges, and ultimately continuously improve within a strong, performance‐oriented culture."
In terms of performance pay, the wording was revised after drawing complaints from several Democratic board members.
In the adopted version on pg. 17, the plan says one strategy for recruiting and retaining staff is to "develop and pilot staffing and compensation structures focused on performance."
This draft version from May drew complaints for saying that "signing bonus and performance bonus plans will be used to retain effective teachers and principals in low-performing schools with unique challenges."
Performance pay is being used now at the five Renaissance Schools and the Longview School.
During Tuesday's work session discussion, board member Jim Martin said the wording was better on performance pay in the latest version. But Martin said that there is “no statistically significant evidence that it did anything” at the Renaissance Schools.
All four of the schools in the Renaissance program last school year saw increases in their proficiency rate. Staff has pointed to how the Renaissance Schools on average saw higher proficiency gains than other schools in the district.
Board member John Tedesco, who supports performance pay, pointed out that Barwell Road Elementary School's proficiency rate increased nine percentage points.
Martin responded by noting that the proficiency rate only went up one percentage point at Creech Road Elementary. He said one school's performance gain was above the county's average while one's school gain was below.
Tedesco countered that Creech Road's scores are at least going up now after having gone down for five years in a row.
Martin said you can't show causation between the gains and the performance pay. He said that schools with proficiency rates above 90 percent don't have as much room to go up compared to schools that have rates below 70 percent.
"We’re over interpreting the data," Martin said. "Pay for performance has been shown over and over again to create more problems."
Martin also objected to the use of Managed Performance Empowerment.
Board member Susan Evans said she can live with the revised wording on performance pay, calling it a compromise. But she said her support doesn't means she's giving carte blanche for using performance pay.
Board member Christine Kushner said there hasn't been enough discussion about Managed Performance Empowerment. Kushner said she had concerns, including whether the area superintendents have the ability to oversee the schools since they have so many under their watch.
Tedesco said questioning the use of MPE would be "micromanaging" because it would be telling Tata how to manage staff.
The discussion didn't stop when it came up for a vote during the regular meeting.
Before the vote, Evans called it a "document we can all live with." But she said she had to state for the record her position on the use of performance pay.
"I’m willing to review scenarios that might take into consideration compensation based on performance so as long as we develop a rubric for determining teacher performance, in particular, that’s not solely based on student test scores," Evans said. "I want to go on the record that I would not support a performance-based system that is solely based on student test scores.
I also would like to say that I’m not committing by this statement to implementing overall compensation structures focused on performance. I’m willing to pilot them, to take a look at them and us decide as we move along. I just need to be clear on that, but I’m willing to compromise and move forward with this."
Martin said he could not accept the wording on MPE or performance pay.
“When you look at the strategy there are far too many scenarios where you may have a low-performing school but you’ve got fantastic leadership in that school," Martin said of MPE. "They don’t need more central office management than maybe a high-performing school.
As a teacher clearly noted to me last week, some of the high-performing schools are high performing largely because of the students that are assigned to the school. It’s not that they don’t have good leadership, but the leadership is not what creates the major differential in the high performance or not whereas there are some of our low-performing schools where the leadership both at the administrative and the teaching level is fantastic. They don’t need more central office oversight.
While on paper that strategy may look like a fine rubric, in practice I do not see it as effective in an educational setting. That would be reason enough for me not to support this plan.”
Kushner said she concurred with much of what Martin had to say and hopes they'll have further dialogue on MPE.
Tedesco said, like Evans, he has concerns about the wording on performance pay. But he said it's for a far different reason.
"Throughout our last 16 iterations it has gotten softer, softer and softer so I’m a little disappointed in that," Tedesco said of the performance pay wording. "But, as Ms. Evans noted, as a show of compromise I will not reject it. I will support it because we all have worked on it together as a team for some extended period of time now.
While it doesn’t have every single thing that I personally would value and like, I see it as a good benchmark, as a goal for us as a system to work and move forward towards. I see it as something that we’ve come together collaboratively on."
Board vice chairman Keith Sutton tried to ease the concerns of the board members.
"Again, I stress to all members of this board this is a living, breathing document and just sets goals for us, a road map for where we want to be as a district and as a system so I ask that you keep that in mind as well” Sutton said.
The vote was 6-2 with Kushner and Martin as the dissenters.