School & District Management

Colo. District Boots Traditional Salary Schedule

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 10, 2010 9 min read
Harrison School District Two Superintendent Mike Miles is rolling out a system for teachers in the Colorado district that will scrap the salary schedule and reward teachers in part for student achievement.
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The much-lauded ProComp system in Denver is unquestionably Colorado’s most famous contribution to the intensifying dialogue about performance-based compensation, but it now has competition from a district just 60 miles to the south: Harrison School District Two.

Located at the southern end of Colorado Springs, the 11,000-student district this fall will be among the first in the nation to replace the traditional salary schedule with a pay system based entirely on observations of teacher practice and student-achievement results.

The “Effectiveness and Results” pay plan is the capstone of an aggressive effort by Superintendent Mike Miles to improve educator effectiveness.

Pay reform as such is not its only mechanism, but Mr. Miles holds that the district’s greatest instructional expenditure—salaries—must be part of a systematic focus on effective teaching. Principals aren’t to be left out, either: A results-based pay plan for them will begin a year later.

Compensation-Plan Elements

Eighty-four percent of licensed teachers were placed in categories between January and April to set their salaries. The remaining teachers will be placed in the 2011-12 school year. On average, teachers have earned a $3,977 increase under the “Effectiveness and Results” plan. It bases teacher compensation on the combination of two factors:

PERFORMANCE DATA include multiple observations by a principal or assistant principal according to a standards-based framework.

ACHIEVEMENT DATA include, but are not limited to:
• State standardized-test results (status and/or growth analyses);
• Common assessments and progress-monitoring assessments;
• Data from interim assessments; and
• Timed student-constructed response results.

Scores for each component are aggregated to arrive at a final rating. The system has nine tiers, and the bar gets more rigorous for each placement. A teacher can get an unsatisfactory rating on one component and still receive a final “Progressing I” placement, for instance, but teachers must score at the proficient level on both components to earn a final “Proficient I” rating. Principals can nominate teachers for “distinguished” status—placement at one of the top four categories. Such placements require teachers to satisfy a more-detailed district-level review.

• For their first placement, teachers’ raises are capped at $8,000.
• Graduate credits are considered only as part of the criteria for being placed at the “Proficient IIII” level or higher.
• Teachers cannot earn less under the plan than under the former salary schedule; no teacher is docked pay upon placement.
• Teachers may skip tiers only once during their career.
• Teachers who score poorly on three successive summative evaluations will be moved down a level on the plan and may be docked pay.

Salary Tiers


Returning Teachers’ Initial Placements*


*Out of 562 teachers

SOURCE: Harrison School District Two

As with any major deviation from traditional pay schedules, the changes here have not come without their share of controversy. Harrison School District Two does not have collective bargaining, but it does have a local teachers’ association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The group, which represents a quarter of the district’s 820 licensed teachers, maintains that teachers’ placements into the new pay system’s categories have not always been performed fairly or objectively.

By and large, though, teachers hold a more-nuanced set of opinions about the change. They include some who remain cautious overall about performance-based pay, but do not doubt Mr. Miles’ commitment to boosting high-quality teaching.

“Time is going to tell whether performance pay works in education, but he’s put in a firm foundation here,” said Kimberly D. Easdon, a literacy coach at Soaring Eagles Elementary School. “He has changed the thinking about how a school building should run. ... So far, I can’t argue with the results.”

Nestled in the shadow of Pikes Peak, Harrison School District Two was under “academic watch” by the state four years ago. Its students scored 160th out of 178 districts on a state achievement measure.

When Mr. Miles, 53, was in the running for the superintendent’s job, he impressed the school board not just with a comprehensive model for uniting the district’s goals around educator improvement, but also with his uncanny ability to home in on areas of weakness, according to Deborah Hendrix, the board president.

“He said, ‘You’re doing too much, and none of it’s being done well.’ And I just laughed,” she recounted. “We had so many programs that there was no way to get our hands around what our priorities were.”

His early work in the district focused on building the capacity of principals to give teachers meaningful feedback on the quality of their teaching. Principals now use teacher-performance standards, tightly integrated with the district’s goals, to determine areas of weakness in instruction and to address them individually and through professional-learning communities.

Teachers receive eight to 16 “spot” observations annually by their principals or assistant principals of 10 to 15 minutes each, in addition to several formal, class-long ones.

“It has been the biggest growth experience of my life,” said Cheri L. Martinez, the principal of Harrison High School. “I had to become a student of instruction. I had to spend more hours of my day in the classroom. And it was the best thing for me and the building.”

Accountability for principals in supporting the improvement of their teachers comes mainly in the form of twice-annual reviews conducted on-site by Mr. Miles and a core team of district administrators. Teachers’ perceptions are taken into account in the reviews, too.

No longer do principals’ “action plans” that guide a year’s schoolwide improvement objectives sit yellowing on shelves. Instead, leaders are quizzed in detail about whether they have met the goals they’ve set in those documents—such as helping teachers’ performance to increase—and whether they have data to prove it.

Kelli Trausch, the principal of Soaring Eagles Elementary, jokes about the weight she put on during the superintendent’s first years in the district—the “Mike 30.”

“You had better know your stuff with Mike Miles,” she said. “He will not stand for a smoke screen.”

Principals here say uniformly that Mr. Miles models the practices he wants to see from school leaders. He spends a good part of each day visiting schools, observing instruction in two or three classrooms, and querying building leaders about what he sees.

While gentle and soft-spoken, Mr. Miles, whose career includes time in the U.S. military and at the U.S. Department of State, in addition to serving as a teacher, seemingly is always thinking about how performance can improve.

“There’s lots to validate here,” he told Paige Fox, the principal of Stratton Meadows Elementary School, after a visit to one classroom. “But in small group, there were a couple of kids that didn’t do anything, that were copying off other students.

“It’s a small fix, but it’s every kid,” he continued.

Effectiveness and Results

The pay component flows from the many observations teachers now receive.

Placements on the pay scale each year will be made by combining two elements: a summative performance rating by the principal based on the observations, and a gauge of how much progress students have made, as shown by several different measures. Most teachers received their initial placements over the past four months; the new salaries go into effect in the fall.

Harrison School District Two Superintendent Mike Miles, right, observes a classroom at Otero Elementary School in his Colorado district along with visiting teachers from the Sheridan, Colo., schools. Mr. Miles is pushing an “Effectiveness and Results” pay plan to improve educator effectiveness.

Talitha Couture, a 3rd grade math teacher at Otero Elementary School who is now in her second year of teaching, was placed in the “Proficient I” tier on the pay scale. Her pay will rise by $8,000, to about $41,000, in the coming school year.

If she continues to perform at that level, she will rise to the full Proficient I salary of $48,000 the following year. It would have taken her 14 years and 48 hours of continuing-education credits to reach that grade under the old salary schedule.

“It’s encouraging because ... it really reflects how much you’re willing to put into your work,” Ms. Couture said of the new pay plan.

Not all teachers have been happy with their placements. Mike Stahl, the executive director of the Pikes Peak Education Association, the regional union affiliate, likens the system to a “beauty contest” that allows principals to handpick favorites for higher placement and pay.

By its design, he added, the system demands more of teachers who had reached higher levels of pay under the old salary schedule.

“Veteran teachers’ [salaries] are basically all frozen,” Mr. Stahl said. “They would have to move to [the] Proficient II [tier], and there are not very many of those teachers.”

But some principals say that other teachers have come to view the new system as a wake-up call. “I had teachers crying” after early reviews this year, said Ms. Fox, the principal at Stratton Meadows. “We had to take the [rating scores] off the observation form for a while. We spent a lot of time on the ‘spot’ observations.”

But by the end of the school year, Ms. Fox said, most teachers agreed with their final placements. She attributes that to the number of observations, which are documented in writing, and the check provided by student-achievement results.

In 2011-12, principals will be compensated under a similar system. That is as much a change for principals as it is for teachers, but it has helped build credibility with the teaching force for the pay plan, said Ms. Martinez, Harrison High’s principal.

“It’s only fair, in my opinion,” she said. “It feels good to the teachers that the playing field is equitable, and that we are not getting paid by steps.”

Given the delicate nature of many of the changes in the district, how has Mr. Miles managed to put them in place in just four years?

Superintendent Mike Miles is rolling out a merit-based pay system for all teachers in the Harrison school district and is scrapping the annual salary schedule entirely. Teacher pay will now be based on observations conducted by principals and himself, and student academic-growth measures.

The superintendent’s colleagues attribute his success to his drive and a sense that every second counts when it comes to students. But there is another factor at play: Mr. Miles is no incrementalist.

One of his first instructional decisions was to require teachers to leave their doors open to facilitate the newly instituted system of classroom observations. Teachers clamored for time to adjust to the change. But Mr. Miles held firm.

“I had teachers ask, ‘Can we open the doors up a foot this year, so we can get used to it?’ ” Mr. Miles recalled. “That was not negotiable.”

Similarly, Mr. Miles holds strong beliefs about organizational effectiveness, largely developed from his years in the military. At their heart: Leadership requires knowing when to make a decision unilaterally, and when it’s appropriate to ask for input or seek consensus.

He took steps early on to centralize much decisionmaking, by urging the board to reconstitute the policies governing a panel that guides a local meet-and-confer agreement with teachers. The change effectively gave the teachers’ association less say over instructional policy.

Nevertheless, he scoffed at the idea that teachers haven’t been appropriately consulted. A focus group that included teacher representatives from each school, for instance, made important decisions about the shape of the plan, according to the superintendent.

Initially, the pay system was to have consisted of two separate pay scales, one for teachers in core academic classes and another for noncore subjects such as art. The proposed segmentation drew an outcry from the teacher focus group.

“Teachers were saying, ‘How dare you even consider having two pay scales?’ ” Mr. Miles said. “We changed it right there on the spot.”

Mr. Miles acknowledged, though, that the changes would likely have taken longer to see through in a district with a master bargaining agreement. “Probably eight to 10 years,” he said.

Next Steps

It is still early in the implementation of the pay plan, and the data on its effects are, not surprisingly, still sketchy, though district officials point to rising test scores and the district’s removal from the state academic-watch list.

In the district’s most recent school climate survey, conducted in February, more than 73 percent of teachers responding said feedback they received “mostly” or “definitely” helped them improve instruction; 66 percent said they understood the evaluation system and its expectations for their performance. But it also found that teachers felt nervous about the pay component.

Some likely share the opinion of Kristen Finn, a 4th grade teacher in the magnet program at Soaring Eagles. She likes the plan overall, but has had some concerns about the rapid pace of implementation and about the teacher-performance framework, which is undergoing its third revision.

Ms. Hendrix of the school board says she understands such sentiments. “There have been times when we’ve said, ‘Mike, people haven’t caught up yet,’ ” she said. “It’s ... to remind him that it’s important to have different venues and opportunities to communicate with the public so they have multiple ways to grab hold of these changes.”

Yet there is evidence that the plan has galvanized teacher support, too. At Harrison High, some teachers have formed an informal group that will strive to reach the highest levels of teacher performance on the plan, according to Ms. Martinez, the principal.

Mr. Miles is gambling that such support will grow, and that teachers who aren’t committed to improving—or don’t agree philosophically with the system—will leave the district voluntarily. Some have already done so. According to figures, 59 of the 685 teachers placed this past year are resigning. Most had been placed below the proficient tier.

But retention of great teachers, not attrition, is the system’s ultimate goal, and it is one of the indicators that Mr. Miles and the board have set to gauge the impact of the changes. And if those goals aren’t met, Mr. Miles said, “we probably should stop and do something else.”

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Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Colo. District Scraps Traditional Teacher-Pay Schedule


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