Denver Pay-for-Performance Pilot Still Has Far To Go, Report Says

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Denver's closely watched pay-for-performance pilot has fallen behind the implementation schedule that district and teachers' union officials devised last fall, and several major hurdles still loom for the groundbreaking effort.

Although 342 teachers in a dozen elementary schools volunteered for the program that links teacher compensation to student performance, no high schools have agreed to take part, says a recent report by the pilot's four-person design team.

Significant technical challenges still ahead include creating a better database linking student achievement data with teacher and school information, and establishing clearer guidelines for setting performance objectives and measuring progress, says the report, which was submitted last month.

"We recognized there would be course corrections and there would be challenges," school board President Elaine Gantz Berman said. "So I don't think we're surprised that we're not as far along as we had hoped to be, given that a pilot of this complexity around pay for performance hasn't been developed or implemented anywhere else."

Three Ways To Pay

From the beginning, Denver's foray into performance-based pay has been viewed as an experiment—but one that could offer lessons for building an entirely new pay scheme for whole district.

Moreover, the pilot comes at a time when new compensation systems for teachers are drawing increased attention—and prompting heated debate—across the country.

Last week, delegates to the annual meeting of the National Education Association, the parent organization of the Denver union, defeated a move that would have opened the door for performan-based pay. While several districts and states recently have adopted new pay policies—such as those that reward all educators in a building for meeting specified schoolwide goals— Denver opted to venture where few others have dared: tying individual teachers' pay to their own students' progress.

The agreement approved last fall by district leaders and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association calls for trying three approaches: One is based on standardized-test scores, another is linked to achievement on teacher-made assessments, and a third takes into account teachers' acquisition of new knowledge and skills along with student achievement.

Under the plan, schools would volunteer to participate in the two-year pilot, and teachers who achieved both of two goals they set for themselves would earn up to $1,500 above their regular annual pay.

As hoped, 12 elementary schools signed on this past year. Only 3.2 percent of their teachers failed to achieve one of their two objectives.

But the architects of the plan had wanted at least three middle schools to take part, and so far only one has stepped forward. And while the intention was for high schools to begin participating in Year 2, none has signed on. The 70,000-student district has 84 elementary schools, 18 middle schools, and 12 high schools.

Realizing the project would take longer than anticipated, the district and the teachers' union agreed this past March to extend it by two years. They also lowered the rate of approval needed for a school to take part—from 85 percent of the faculty to two-thirds. The extension was encouraged by a local philanthropy, the Rose Community Foundation, which pledged $1 million toward the pilot's development this year.

Technical Difficulties

A campaign to encourage more participation by teachers in the district's upper grades is planned for the coming school year. Secondary schools and teachers have been more wary of the experiment in part, district and union leaders say, because teachers at that level are only responsible for individual students in a given subject.

According to the June report, the district's various assessment, human resource, and payroll systems also need to be aligned better for the plan to work. Moreover, the experience of the first year pointed up the need for clearer frameworks for goals-setting and assessment. Some teachers, for instance, pledged to raise their students' scores by certain percentages, while others promised progress measured in grade equivalents.

"Regardless of the approach, we've got to say, 'This is how much growth we expect from students, these are the measures we can use, and these are the ones we can't use, and here's how to use them,'" said Brad Jupp, one of the union representatives on the pilot's design team.

Despite being knocked off its original schedule, the plan itself remains on track, proponents of the pilot say. What's important, they add, is designing a viable experiment that offers credible evidence in the larger national debate over performance-based pay.

"We have this miraculous convergence of the stars," said Philip Gonring, the Rose Foundation's program officer for education. "You have a major union and a school board agreeing to at least pilot letting pay ride on student achievement.

"It's important that this be given its best effort, so that the larger national community cannot criticize paying teachers for performance because of a bad pilot," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 10

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Denver Pay-for-Performance Pilot Still Has Far To Go, Report Says
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