Teaching Profession

Denver Performance-Pay Plan Yields Student Progress

By Julie Blair — January 14, 2004 4 min read
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A compensation system designed to provide Denver teachers with monetary bonuses for their extra efforts to improve student performance has produced considerable achievement in many classrooms, the final report on the nationally watched pilot project says.

What’s more, researchers suggest that the pay plan served as an engine for positive change throughout the district. And yet the nation’s first so-called pay-for-performance endeavor is difficult and expensive to implement, the report says. School districts that hope to accomplish similar goals would be wise to evaluate whether they have the resources and commitment to try such a plan, it suggests.

The report, “Catalyst for Change: Pay for Performance in Denver,” is available online from the Community Training and Assistance Center. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“The pilot has demonstrated that the focus on student achievement and a teacher’s contribution to such achievement can be a major trigger for change— if the initiative also addresses the district factors that shape the school,” concludes the Community Training and Assistance Center, a nonprofit organization based in Boston that has been studying the project for four years. The initiative, it says, “can provide a basis for improving the entire school system by tying district activities to core classroom needs.”

The center’s lengthy report, “Catalyst for Change: Pay for Performance in Denver,” was scheduled to be released late last week.

Access to Data

The two entities that designed the plan and are now overseeing it— the school board and the local teachers’ union—see the report as praise for their work.

“This has validated much of the work we’ve done,” said Lester R. Woodward, the president of the school board and a member of the four-person team that pulled the project together.

“It fulfills a promise to our members to externally research the effort,” added Brad Jupp, who represents the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, “and affirms ... the process of individual teacher objective-setting.”

The school board will vote later this month on expanding the pay program; members of the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, will cast ballots on the measure in early March.

If both agree to the idea, the program will be expanded to include all schools in the 72,000-student district. Currently, 13 percent of schools take part in the program, which began in 1999.

Denver’s innovative plan rewards teachers who craft, then meet, two principal-approved objectives related to student achievement. For each goal reached, teachers receive a bonus of $750 annually. An algebra teacher, for example, might set the goal of having 70 percent of her class show 40 percent growth from a pretest to a post- test.

The Boston researchers found that the system positively affected student achievement in many cases.

For the study, teacher objectives were grouped into four categories, from most to least difficult to attain. The researchers then cross-referenced those with student test scores. They found that students who had made the most progress were taught by teachers whose objectives were the highest-rated.

Nevertheless, many teachers did not attribute changes in their classroom instruction to the program, said William Slotnik, the executive director of the Boston group. “Participants found that they did, however, have greater access to student-achievement data and that they used it more effectively ... to establish growth expectations and to focus earlier on students who may need more assistance,” the report concludes.

Likewise, the venture changed district practices as a whole for the better.

The study found that communication often improved between colleagues, district goals were more clearly articulated, and strategies implemented. The system even provided a vehicle for addressing other issues.

“The changes required to identify, strengthen, and reward individual student growth and individual teacher contributions under pay-for-performance have the added effect of stimulating other parts of the school system to improve the quality of support and service,” the report asserts.

A Costly Venture

Districts that want to replicate the system need to be careful, however.

The process is complicated, expensive, and requires a deep commitment on the part of all involved, the Community Training and Assistance Center concluded.

Making it possible for teachers to fulfill their expectations “place[s] demands on the district that may be surprisingly difficult to meet,” the center’s researchers write.

School districts must, for example, align the standards, curriculum content, instructional delivery, and supervisory and human resources, the report says. They will also have to provide substantial data to teachers for them to assess their students, then provide substantial training for them so they know how to analyze the information.

Not only would districts have to reallocate funding, but they would also in all likelihood have to obtain outside financial assistance.

Philanthropies alone provided $4 million for the Denver project, according to Mr. Woodward. The expense to the district has not yet been tabulated.

Still, he and others involved believe the outcome in the Mile High City justified the work and expense involved.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Denver Performance-Pay Plan Yields Student Progress

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