Teaching Profession

Denver Teachers To Pilot Pay-for-Performance Plan

By Ann Bradley — September 22, 1999 4 min read

Teachers in Denver have approved a two-year pilot that will give bonuses to some teachers if they meet goals for their students’ academic performance.

The plan, approved by the 4,300 members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association as part of their negotiated three-year contract, calls for members to evaluate the results of the experiment and decide whether to continue it.

Paths to Performance Pay
Denver teachers, in cooperation with their principals, will write objectives for their own performance based on one of three different approaches:
  • Students’ scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.
  • Students’ grades on criterion-referenced tests and other teacher-created measures.
  • Students’ progress when their teacher acquires new knowledge and skills related to the job, such as taking a course in reading instruction.

That flexibility was a big factor in teachers’ willingness to go along with the pay-for-performance plan, said Becky Wissink, the vice president of the union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The agreement, which was overwhelmingly approved Sept. 10, is to take effect this school year.

“They are controlling their own destiny,” Ms. Wissink said.

Previous attempts by states and districts to institute merit-pay plans that distinguished among teachers have largely failed. Teachers balked at being evaluated by principals, often on unclear criteria, and school systems typically ran short of money, capping the number who could receive the extra pay.

Unlike those efforts, the pilot program in Denver will tie teachers’ pay to student outcomes using three different approaches, including standardized tests, teacher-created tests and projects, and increases in teachers’ knowledge and skills.

Compromise Mix

About 450 teachers in 12 elementary and three middle schools will participate in the pilot. They will receive $500 bonuses for agreeing to test the pay plan the first year, plus another $1,000 if they meet two goals for raising student achievement.

In the second year, teachers can earn bonuses of $750 for each goal met. High schools will also be added the second year.

Teachers in roughly one-third of the participating schools will focus on setting and meeting goals to improve students’ scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

In another set of schools, teachers will be judged on their students’ progress on classroom projects and teacher-written tests. And the final group of schools will see whether students’ scores improve when their teachers undertake professional development.

The mix of approaches represents a compromise for both the school board, which wanted a merit-pay plan based on test scores, and the union, which favored a link to enhancements in teachers’ knowledge and skills.

The bottom line in all three approaches to teacher performance will be gains in student achievement--a major goal for the school board, said Laura Lefkowits, its vice president.

“Everyone has been asking, ‘Can you do this? Can it be done in a fair and reasonable way and will it improve student achievement?’ That’s a fundamental question, and we hope to answer it,” Ms. Lefkowits said.

Ultimately, she said, the board wants to replace the current salary schedule with a new one that would pay teachers based on performance, rather than giving increases solely for additional years of service and education.

Before the contract’s third year, union members will vote on whether to continue the performance-pay plan.

Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, praised the collaborative approach to teacher pay in Denver and the pilot program’s emphasis on gathering data. “People are assuming that pay for performance will enhance student achievement, but nobody really knows whether that’s true,” he said. The decision to halt or continue the pay plan, he said, “will be based on good data and research. That is a bit revolutionary in education.”

Answering Questions

Ms. Wissink, one of two union officials who will work full time to get the program off the ground, said the experiment should provide answers to long-standing questions about teacher compensation. “If money is an incentive for people to do more, then we’ll test that theory,” she said. “If people are trying as hard as they can anyway, we’ll look at that theory as well.”

The four-person “design team” that will manage the pilot, including two district representatives, is still drafting its guidelines.

At least 85 percent of the teachers in a school must agree before the faculty can participate. In cooperation with the principal, each teacher would then set two goals or objectives for improving student achievement and would be paid according to whether such targets were met.

Teachers who object to the plan can transfer out of their schools under the new agreement.

Along with principals, the design team will help teachers set suitable goals, Ms. Wissink said. In some schools, all teachers might try to increase scores on the Iowa tests by a certain percentage, while in others, plans might vary or be shared by teachers of the same grade.

Measuring student achievement on teacher-written tests and class projects might involve, for example, an English teacher specifying how many books and reports her students would complete, Ms. Wissink said.

And in schools where professional development is the focus, each teacher would set a personal-learning goal in cooperation with the principal.

Allan Odden, an expert on teacher compensation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Denver plan was “an interesting pilot” that would contribute to the continuing debate over how to link teachers’ pay to student performance.

“Merit pay in the past was usually trying to identify the top 15 or 20 percent of teachers, usually on fuzzy criteria,” said Mr. Odden, a proponent of paying teachers to gain specific knowledge and skills. “Here, the criteria are much clearer--it’s student performance.”

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