Harrison on leading edge of teacher pay reform, experts say

CAROL MCGRAW Updated: January 9, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: January 9, 2010

Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Mike Miles compares his school district’s new way of paying teachers to the TV sci-fi program “Flash Forward,” where for a moment everyone sees their future with decidedly different reactions.

“We are seeing everyone’s worst fears and their best hopes,” says Miles.

Harrison last week became the first district in this region and one of a handful nationally to adopt a “pay for performance” system of compensating teachers based on how well their students do.

It turns upside down the traditional fixed-pay system based on a teacher’s education and years in the profession.

In the Harrison system, teachers will be evaluated annually on their skills and their pay will be commensurate with their performance and student achievement.

“This is a  bold and exciting strategy,” says Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor and research associate with the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Harrison  is at the leading edge of much needed change in how teachers are perceived and compensated, she says.  

President Obama and Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, have pushed for such innovation, noting that teacher evaluation and professional development is the most broken part of the profession. In the American Educator, Duncan compares the old way of doing things as  “the factory model of education, where teachers are treated as interchangeable widgets who keep the educational assembly line moving.” He says, “more than 95 percent of teachers are rated good or superior even in schools that are chronically under performing. Worse yet, evaluations typically fail to take any account of a teacher’s impact on student learning.”

As enticement for change, the U.S. Department of Education has stepped up federal grants for innovative reform programs.

“The grants will  help seed the climate for more change,” says Roza.

 It’s an attractive carrot at a time when the dismal economy has wrecked havoc on state education budgets. In Colorado, the predicted shortfall is $370 million statewide for K-12.

The new program will cost Harrison, with 10,500 students and a $79 million budget, about $1 million a year in salary increases for 840 licensed staff members. While the district is applying for  federal grants, the program is not contingent on getting them. And no program or classroom money will be used, officials say.  

The district will cut $500,000 for a stipend plan for department chairpersons and $300,000 in teacher attendance incentives to pay for the program, along with adding $200,000 from the general fund, said Harrison board president Debra Hendrix, who with her four colleagues unanimously approved the plan.

Roza, and other national education experts, note that many districts nationwide are meeting the economic crisis by slashing teaching staffs and rolling back salaries. The Harrison plan, she said “is purposeful.”

In it, there are nine compensation levels with new teachers getting about $35,000 and master teachers $90,000. Those top level teachers must produce student achievement gains, community leadership, participate in lifelong learning, contribute widely to the profession and mentor colleagues.

Harrison has several things working for it as it makes the change. Districts between 10,000 and 20,000 students can get things done quicker than larger urban districts, Roza says. Likewise, “a strong trusted leader can make cutting edge change.”

Miles, a non-nonsense former Army Ranger, and the progressive school board has been widely lauded for efforts to turn around Harrison. It has put in place many innovative programs and is on the fourth year of a  five year plan to raise student achievement in a district where most students are from low income families. While it lags state averages in assessments, there have been significant improvements.

Miles knows the change won’t be easy, but he is convinced it will make a difference in student achievement.

Teachers, too, are hoping for the best.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Felicia Kazmier, a teacher at Otero Elementary School. She says she embraces the pay for performance plan, especially because teachers  had input.  “Actually the district is not asking me to do anything I am not already doing in my classroom, except now they want to pay me for it.”

Marybeth Hamilton, an intervention specialist who heads the Harrison High School reading program, senses that the plan will “revolutionize our practice and award the integrity of teachers.” She especially likes that collaboration is built in, especially important to her area where reading and writing are promoted across the curriculum.

“Teachers still have many questions about how this will actually play out,” says Megan Sheppard, a teacher at Carmel Middle School, “We absolutely need to rethink our current accountability systems and reform how teachers are paid. But is the answer to pay teachers more or less based on how well students score on tests? The hope is, of course, that teachers will rise to the challenge and raise student achievement in ways that nurture the real needs of students.”

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