A few months ago, I wrote about how important it is to use the right metric—fairness for teachers— when evaluating the success of pay-for-performance compensation systems. That post was a response to a rather biased Denver Post article on the subject, which featured as one of its subheadings the assertion that these systems provide “No Benefit to Students.” It also completely failed to mention perhaps the state’s most interesting example of pay for performance in practice: Harrison School District in Colorado Springs.
As it turns out, that was a serious omission. 9News ran a story yesterday about Harrison’s success at elevating its minority students. From that story:
The Harrison School District has more minorities than most districts in Advanced Placement courses. It has more Black and Latino students in Gifted and Talented classes. Harrison has a consistent graduation rate of Black and Latino students of higher than 75 percent. And, testing data shows that this district located on the southern end of Colorado Springs has the smallest achievement gap between white students and students of color.
As the story implies, Harrison’s 2014 graduation data show that 77.7 percent of its black students graduated on time. That number was 75.3 for its Hispanic students. Those paying attention will note that the rate for black students is actually higher than the state’s overall graduation rate of 77.3 percent. For further reference, the state’s overall graduation rates for black and Hispanic students were just 69 percent and 66.7 percent respectively.
In fact, Harrison has all but closed the graduation rate gap between white students (78.8 percent) and minority students. Black students in Harrison now trail their white peers by only about 1 percent, and Hispanic students have also narrowed the gap to roughly 3.5 percent. In Colorado overall, white students (83.2 percent) graduate at a significantly higher rate than black students or Hispanic students.
That’s compared to, say, Thompson School District, where reform opponents have often squawked that pay-for-performance models don’t work. There, Hispanic students graduated at a rate of just 64.5 percent, as opposed to 76.6 percent of white students. (In fairness, both of Thompson’s black high school seniors—yes, there were really only two—also graduated, giving that group a 100 percent graduation rate).
As I’ve pointed out before, however, graduation rates don’t always mean as much as we think they do. Kids have to actually leave school ready to move into college or a career, or else those extra diplomas don’t mean much.
Given all that, I’m compelled by academic integrity to say that Harrison’s remediation rates—or the percent of high school graduates going on to public colleges or universities in Colorado who require remedial courses to get up to speed—have been pretty ugly for most of its high schools over the past several years. With the exception of the district’s charter high school, which has an impressively low remediation rate of just 12.2 percent, the district’s high schools tend to come in well above the overall state remediation rate.
But before all you anti-P4P folks declare victory, consider the trend in remediation rates over time for the other two high schools with data available, Harrison HS and Seirra HS. Here’s a graph to help you do that:
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Harrison High School has cut its remediation rate by 40 percent since 2011. Seirra has cut its remediation rate by 16 percent. And in the meantime, the district has all but closed the graduation rate gap between white and minority students, made great progress narrowing the academic achievement gaps between those same students, and increased the number of minority students in advanced classes. All in a district made up of 72 percent low-income kids.
I’m sure none of this has anything to do with Harrison’s pay-for-performance system, which launched in 2010, or the culture of high expectations and strong incentives it has created. And indeed, there has been no rigorous academic study of the district’s various initiatives and their specific statistical impacts on performance. But I think we can safely say that something is working in Harrison, and that tying student performance to teacher evaluations has not led to the destruction of the school district’s ability to educate kids.
Maybe a few other districts should take note before they get back on the anti-P4P bandwagon.