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Sticky Numbers: Making Sense of Dougco’s Pay System and Its Outcomes

Like Elmer’s glue, numbers get sticky when misused. And just like glue is tough (but fun!) to peel off your hands, it can take a little while to clear up sticky number messes. Yet clean them up we must, and so I dedicate today’s post to clearing up some numerical confusion surrounding Dougco’s pay-for-performance system.

The most recent illustration of sticky confusion in Dougco comes courtesy of comments on a recent Denver Post op-ed written by Doug Benevento, Vice President of the Douglas County Board of Education. Some of the comments are the typical anti-reform, pro-union rhetoric to which we’ve all sadly grown accustomed, but some others hint at some more systemic misunderstandings of the district’s pay structure and the numbers associated with it. Those need to be addressed.

The first big misunderstanding is DCSD’s actual turnover rate. One commenter accuses Benevento of “finagling” (great word) CDE’s official 17.28% teacher turnover figure to make the district look better. Yet it is CDE, not Benevento, doing the finaglin’.

The state’s calculations include teachers leaving after riding out their final year of employment under PERA’s 110/110 program, teachers on single-year contracts, teachers who were promoted or moved to non-teaching positions in the district, and teachers scooped up as additional losses due to differences in reporting timeframes between the district and the state. It also includes charter school teachers, the majority of whom are not affected by the district’s compensation system.

Benevento’s 13% figure, on the other hand, includes all licensed employees actually leaving regular district schools according to DCSD human resources records. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a more reasonable way to measure turnover to me. Even if you disagree, CDE’s figures don’t paint a particularly damning picture either. The state’s worst-case scenario puts the district only very slightly higher than the state’s roughly 17% teacher turnover average and still significantly lower many than neighboring districts (looking at you, DPS).

The second major misunderstanding has to do with the actual teacher turnover numbers behind the percentages supplied in the op-ed. Several commenters point out that the 100% turnover in ineffective teachers and “nearly 30%” turnover (the actual figure is 27.5%) in partially effective teachers only affected a very small number of Dougco’s roughly 3,000 educators. The same commenters point out that many more effective and highly effective teachers have left the district in terms of raw numbers. This, they say, is evidence of a mass exodus due to the pay structure.

Not quite.

The key to understanding Dougco’s turnover numbers is putting them into context. Only about 10% of the district’s teachers were rated ineffective or partially effective last year, while roughly 90% were rated effective or highly effective. Given those figures, it’s not exactly shocking to see far fewer lower-rated teachers leaving the district than higher-rated teachers. That, my friends, is why percentages matter.

Dougco’s percentages make clear that lower-rated teachers are leaving faster than higher-rated teachers. There’s nothing misleading about that. In fact, it’s a lot more honest than resting an argument on skewed overall numbers.

As for the “exodus”… well, that’s not really a thing either. Among the comparatively small percentages of effective and highly effective teachers who left the district, Dougco’s exit interview data indicate that the overwhelming majority (70%) rode off into the sunset for “uncontrollable” reasons, not pay- or district-related problems. Far from the catastrophic exodus evoked by reform opponents, it sounds an awful lot like the pay system is working as intended.

None of this is to say that Douglas County has “made it.” Despite being one of the most productive districts in Colorado and recently reclaiming the state’s top accreditation rating, the district’s TCAP scores dipped a little last year. There’s always room to grow.

Still, arguing that a district is imploding and arguing that there’s still some work to do are very different things. From my perspective, Dougco looks to be on the road to future success.