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Pioneering Teacher Compensation Reform: K-12 Educator Pay Innovation in Colorado

IP-2-2011 (March 2011)
Author: Ben DeGrow

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Executive Summary
The transformation of teacher compensation is an integral piece of improving the overall quality of the K-12 instructional workforce. Research overwhelmingly shows the predominant single salary schedule, which pays teachers strictly according to seniority and academic credentials, to be ineffective and financially unsustainable. Numerous local innovations place Colorado at the forefront of teacher compensation reform.

Standing at the head of the pack is Harrison School District Two’s Effectiveness and Results plan, fully implemented in the fall of 2010. Having eliminated the unproductive single salary schedule, Harrison provides three key lessons to policy makers:

  • Credible measures of effective instruction should enable teachers to earn more or less.
  • Effective teacher performance pay also requires reform of evaluations, professional development, assessments and data.
  • Formal teachers union collaboration is not vital to reforming compensation and may impede enacting effective performance pay.

The only other Colorado school district to jettison the single salary schedule, Eagle County Schools adopted merit pay in 2001, and then refashioned the system into “Strategic Compensation” in 2007. Several other Colorado districts have advanced compensation reform with significant financial support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund: Denver Public Schools (ProComp) and Fort Lupton’s Weld County School District Re-8 in 2006; as well as the state’s largest district, Jefferson County Public Schools, and Colorado Springs District 11, both piloting programs awarded in 2010. Another pioneer in compensation reform, Douglas County School District R-1, is developing a more comprehensive pay-for-performance system.

Many Colorado school-level innovators also have implemented a variety of compensation reforms. The Academy 20 option school Discovery Canyon has adopted performance- based pay as part of TAP (formerly known as the Teacher Advancement Program). From 1995 to 2011, many charter schools have implemented innovative approaches to teacher compensation. Reforms include salary increases for advanced career paths, teacher-ranked merit pay, market-based differential pay, and student academic growth bonuses.

Lessons from the innovative districts, option and charter schools include the following:

  • Though convincing proof still lacks, some brands of compensation reform may contribute to improved student learning outcomes.
  • Compensation reform should be viewed mainly as a tool to help shape who serves in the teaching workforce.
  • Results among the Colorado compensation innovators in improving teacher retention are mixed, at best.
  • School-wide bonus pay plans work best alongside individual awards, helping focus teachers on core academic skills.
  • Compensation reform implementation requires transparency and open channels for public and employee feedback.
  • Inequitable or overly subjective pay systems can and should be modified while still preserving a performance-based focus.
  • Different alternative compensation systems can reward different objectives, based on a school’s particular needs.

Tighter budgets should not discourage continued innovation of educator compensation. Rightly done, differential and merit-based pay can help contribute both to long-term financial health and a stronger focus on improved student learning. Pioneering Colorado districts and charter schools have paved the way for others to follow and surpass.