A Colorado school district that's going great guns on performance pay--and it's not Denver

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What happening in Colorado's Harrison School District 2 (11,000 students, of whom 63 percent are minority and 71 percent are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program), deserves some national attention. The district may be the first in the country to eliminate the traditional teacher salary schedule, beating the Gates Deep Dive districts as well as savvy Race to the Top winners.

Starting in the 2010-2011 school year, Harrison's teacher salaries will be based on two factors: student achievement and teacher evaluations.

In pilots of the new evaluation tool, the district saw real results. Last year, 22 percent of Harrison's probationary teachers and 10 percent of non-probationary teachers were rated unsatisfactory under the new evaluation tool, a stark contrast with the rest of the state, where for three years running, close to 100 percent of teachers have received satisfactory ratings.

NCTQ talked with Harrison's superintendent Mike Miles.

Q: Why didn't you need the union's approval to make this plan happen?

A: We don't have a "Master Agreement" with the union, but we do have an "Agreement of Trust and Understanding." When our Collaborative Decision Making Team, comprising seven teachers or licensed staff, seven support staff, and seven other members, does not reach an "Agreement of Trust and Understanding" for three consecutive years, then the school board can write its own with recommendations from the superintendent. That was what happened this year, and the board established the pay for performance plan.

Also, only 25 percent of our staff belongs to the union, and that number is decreasing.

Q: Is this plan modeled after any pay plans already being used in Colorado or elsewhere?

A: Yes and no, but mostly no. We did look at some examples of incentive pay and one example that comes close to performance pay, but nobody has yet eliminated the teacher salary schedule. So, we developed our own pay for performance plan to do just that.

Q: What are you hoping the new pay for performance plan will accomplish?

A: I'm excited because I think it is going to be good for kids. I already see teachers wanting to be more effective and collaborating more in order to improve, and the plan hasn't officially even started yet. For example, we have a group of teachers at Harrison High School who are videotaping each other on their own, not for the administration, so that they can improve their professional practice and move up higher on the pay scale.

Q: How did you determine where teachers would start on the new plan?

A: That's been the hardest thing because we're looking at two things: performance--how teachers engage students, align curriculum, manage their classrooms, design strong lesson objectives--and student achievement data, including quarterly assessments, timed writing assessments, progress monitoring assessments and the state standardized test.

Q: How do you think your new pay plan will impact teacher retention and recruitment?

A: We think we're going to have more people wanting to come here than usual, particularly people who have the same philosophy as Harrison. That is, teachers who aren't afraid of looking at student achievement or accountability and who are confident that they can get student achievement results.

We think that our retention rate will be higher, even in this first year, because we received more "intent to return" letters than usual. However, we know there will be some teachers who will leave because they don't want to be a part of the new pay plan.

Q: Does the new pay for performance plan relate to tenure decisions?

A: It doesn't factor into tenure. By Colorado law, if a teacher reaches a 4th year he/she will be nonprobationary, and that doesn't change with us. But a nonprobationary teacher could be placed lower on the scale than a probationary teacher. If you're doing well, you'll get rewarded well. If your student achievement/performance isn't strong, then you won't get rewarded.

Q: You estimate that only 20 percent of teachers will receive a raise each year. How do you think this will play out?

A: We don't know for sure. Though our cut points for each level of the pay plan are rigorous, they are not so hard that nobody will advance, and they are not so easy that everyone will move up.

Q: What challenges do you anticipate?

A: The challenge is going to be making sure that we have enough data points that we collect with fidelity throughout the year. The goal is to make sure that each teacher in each discipline has the same degree of rigor when we measure effectiveness. For example, we can't have only art teachers making exemplary or no math teachers making exemplary. It has to be fair across disciplines.