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Harrison Teacher Performance Pay: Fordham’s Guide to Serious Reform

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the performance pay plan in Colorado Springs’ Harrison School District, so you may not be up to speed on this cutting-edge innovation. At that time, six months ago, Harrison superintendent Mike Miles was sharing the district’s story around Ohio.

From those events has come at last an excellent Fordham Institute publication with Superintendent Miles himself as the lead author — “to serve as a tool and model for Ohio’s school districts” (and for others as well). I don’t think he’s far off to describe Harrison’s compensation reform as “arguably the boldest pay-for-performance plan in the country.” It’s certainly the boldest in Colorado, and there are only a handful of other districts that even could be considered in the running.

The Fordham report is worth reading in full, as it gives a critical, in-depth look beyond even what my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow wrote in his 2011 issue paper Pioneering Teacher Compensation Reform. Miles lays out in detail the thoughtful and balanced approach to making transformational change, while also answering many of the common objections to teacher performance pay. Here are a baker’s dozen highlights that give the flavor of how different teacher compensation works in Harrison:

  1. At its core, “the Harrison Plan eliminates the traditional teacher salary schedule and replaces it with nine levels of effectiveness”
  2. Effectiveness is measured evenly between teacher performance and student achievement
  3. All teachers are evaluated based on at least eight full observations a year
  4. The student achievement score is broken down into eight evenly weighted pieces, for which there are 88 different templates based on the level and subjects taught
  5. Two of the eight pieces cover every teacher’s evaluation: 1) School-wide growth on state tests and 2) an individual achievement goal selected by the teacher and principal at the beginning of the school year
  6. For all assessments used to measure achievement, a student’s academic growth is measured against students who start with the same score, so not to penalize teachers who start out with less proficient students
  7. Harrison took on the challenge of assessing student proficiency in “non-core courses” like art, and has made great progress in drawing cut scores that fairly align these teachers’ effectiveness level with levels for teachers in other disciplines (without establishing quotas)
  8. A teacher who earns a higher effectiveness rating can be promoted to the next effectiveness level and significantly higher pay after only one year, but it takes three (starting in 2014, it will be two) consecutive lower ratings for a teacher to drop a level and lose pay
  9. Teachers can earn an annual salary from $35,000 at the Novice level to $90,000 at the Master level, but receive little additional pay for additional duties, nor does the district pay for teacher “to attend voluntary professional development”
  10. Unlike traditional salary schedules there are “no automatic cost-of-living adjustments,” but a team of parents, teachers and administrators meets every three years to recommend salary level adjustments to the Board of Education
  11. Harrison implemented the plan during a period of budget cuts with only $800,000 additional in two-year grant funding: the two biggest costs were “initial salary adjustment,” and developing and scoring district-wide assessments
  12. The pay-for-performance plan will remain financially sustainable as long as it remains rigorous, promoting only about one-fifth to one-fourth of teachers each year — a plan cannot be sustained if it “is designed simply to provide teachers with more money”
  13. The plan was introduced in the form of a draft concept paper during the fall of 2009, and by the end of the 2009-10 school year 76 percent of teachers voted to adopt the policy as a memorandum of understanding

Perhaps the most interesting part of the paper are 10 key helpful “lessons learned” that Superintendent Miles shares. You’ll have to go and read those on your own. No, make that the whole paper. Then ask yourself: Why isn’t my school district pursuing this kind of serious reform, while paying some teachers not to teach? It’s a good question to ask, and a good place to start.