Teaching Profession

Houston, Denver Move Into Next Stage of Pay Plans

By Bess Keller — February 08, 2008 4 min read
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Two of the nation’s most closely watched local ventures in revamping teacher pay have taken steps toward workable futures.

In the Houston district, the site of the largest pay-for-performance plan, the latest release of annual bonuses went smoothly, in contrast to the uproar surrounding the event last year, the first year the program was in effect. Texas’s largest district overhauled the program last summer.

In Denver, which paid out the first amounts under its vastly reconfigured plan in 2006, the latest figures show that half the district’s roughly 4,000 teachers have enrolled in the program. As in Houston, the plan is largely voluntary.

When Denver teachers enroll in the new plan, however, they give up automatic salary increments for experience in exchange for more than a half dozen ways to earn more money, two of them directly linked to students’ standardized- test scores. In contrast, Houston teachers accept bonuses on top of their salaries, which continue to be calculated along the traditional dimensions of years in the classroom and coursework.

Bonuses Divisive?

Houston’s plan has attracted attention for the amount of money, the number of teachers involved, and its tight focus on improving student performance as measured mostly by test-score increases. But the first appearance of individual teachers’ bonuses on a newspaper Web site, coupled with the complex and controversial nature of the plan, gave the inaugural round a rocky start. Some 400 teachers showed up at a board meeting to protest the 200,000-student district’s actions. (“Houston in Uproar Over Teachers’ Bonuses,” Feb. 1, 2007.)

Not long after, school officials began working to overhaul the program, a move underwritten in September by a $3.2 million grant from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. Improvements include more attention to communication with teachers, a strengthened analysis of the test-score data, and an increase in the number of educators eligible for the awards. This year, for instance, the district set up an intranet site to alert each teacher privately to his or her projected bonus.

“It’s better than last year,” conceded Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “Still, they are handing out money and getting nothing in return.”

More than 10,600 of the district’s roughly 14,000 classroom and other school-based employees received bonuses Jan. 30, about 2,600 people more than last year, for a total payout of $23 million. The largest bonus was $7,865, and the average was slightly more than $2,000, according to the district.

Still, criticisms teachers and their representatives leveled last year about the wisdom rather than the implementation of the Houston plan remain. Ms. Fallon maintains that the program is useless for improving the performance of teachers. “What we hear from teachers consistently,” she said last week, “is they have no clue what they did to get the money.”

In addition, she said, the bonuses are divisive. Two strands of the program pay school staffs as a whole for improvement greater than the average, with the comparisons made against both other schools in the district and demographically similar schools around the state. But the most lucrative component rewards teachers based on the learning gains made by their students, this year using three years’ worth of data from two different tests.

Houston hired William L. Sanders, a national expert on calculating the “value added” by teachers as gauged by test-score gains, to rework the data system.

District spokesman Terry R. Abbott disputed contentions that the district has received nothing back for its bonuses, saying that early evidence suggests the awards might be helping to keep bonus-winning teachers. Their retention rate last year was just under 89 percent, while the average rate was about 86.5.

More Applicants

In the 73,400-student Denver district, where the new pay plan has been in effect for two years, officials say they have seen positive effects on teacher recruitment. Schools that have found it hard to find and keep teachers in the past saw about a 10 percent increase in applicants for the past school year, officials said.

Denver’s plan, among other features, pays more for working in such a school and more for working in a teaching area that is difficult to fill. A math teacher in a low-performing middle school might make about $3,000 more a year.

The plan, which costs local taxpayers roughly $25 million a year, has won greater acceptance among teachers since its inception, said Kim Ursetta, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Unlike in Houston, the union and the district were partners in devising and promoting the plan.

“[Teachers] have seen the system being implemented, and there haven’t been many issues,” Ms. Ursetta said.

Indeed, just in excess of half the district’s roughly 4,400 teachers are now enrolled in the plan, said Henry Roman, who helps run it for the district and the union. Half the participation comes from teachers who were hired after the plan took effect and had no choice but to join. The last opt-in period for experienced teachers drew only 3 percent of the total teaching force, while the first drew 14 percent.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as Houston, Denver Move Into Next Stage of Pay Plans

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