Michelle Rhee on the Harrison (CO) School District's pay-for-performance plan

This guest blog post is from Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst and a former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Eric Lerum,
StudentsFirst's Vice President for National Policy. In this post they
analyze a Colorado school district's innovative approach to teacher
compensation, profiled in Fordham's latest report, "Teacher Compensation Based on Effectiveness: The Harrison (CO) School District's Pay-for-Performance Plan."

StudentsFirst
had the pleasure of working with teachers and a principal from Harrison, Colorado
late last year. We assisted the New Jersey State Superintendent in organizing
roundtables across the state on the proposed teacher evaluation system under
development. The Harrison folks were
passionate about their work and their success in elevating the teaching
profession there. It was incredibly powerful to listen to these veteran
educators talk about how they felt that their evaluation system treated them as
professionals and how they relied on it as a tool to help them and their
colleagues improve. The principal described the increased, targeted development
she could provide to staff and how the system enabled her to build a team
solely focused on raising their students’ achievement.

What
strikes me most about the Harrison model and why I think it’s so significant is
that it dispels so many of the myths we hear about why a reform like this can’t
be done or why change like they’ve seen in Harrison can’t be implemented and
replicated elsewhere. These are students like we see everywhere else—high poverty
and from families who themselves went through an underperforming school system.
In short, these students come to school with all the challenges we’re familiar
with, and their teachers are expected to deliver results. This is also a
regular public school system—these aren’t charter schools or special schools
that have been given extra funding or programs or powers. For too many years,
the district fell far short of meeting expectations, ranking near the bottom of
the state in student achievement. In 2005, only 54 percent of Harrison
students were proficient in reading.

Harrison set out not just to do
something different, but rather to abolish the status quo.

Yet even
with those challenges, in 2007, led by the bold vision of Superintendent Mike
Miles, Harrison principals, teachers, central
office staff, and board of education members went to work on creating something
better. Harrison set out not just to do
something different, but rather to abolish the status quo and completely
refocus the district and its educators on what mattered most—raising student
achievement.

We know
that what matters most in school when it comes to raising student achievement
and changing their life outcomes is having an effective teacher in every
classroom. Multiple studies confirm this, and wisely we’re seeing
states and districts across the country follow the research and adopt policies
to establish meaningful evaluation systems that enable them to identify
effective instruction and to treat teachers like professionals.

In that
context, Harrison was a trailblazer. They
created an evaluation system that was based equally on performance and student
achievement. The framework they’ve created includes multiple measures for each
category as well, meaning that no one measure—be it student growth on a particular
assessment or performance in only one observational area—determines a teacher’s
rating. Rather, the Harrison system provides a
full picture of what’s happening in the classroom, with the teacher and with
the kids. Further, busting yet another myth, Harrison’s evaluation system takes
a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to evaluating teachers of all subjects
and grade levels using objective measures of student learning growth,
demonstrating that just because there’s not a state assessment already in place
doesn’t mean it’s too complicated to come up with a fair and accurate measure
of a teacher’s impact in the classroom.

Like any
true trailblazer, Harrison has improved its
system since its initial implementation in 2009.

At
StudentsFirst, we strongly advocate that states and districts figure out how
they’re going to measure educator effectiveness AND that they use that
information to inform their decision making. Here, Harrison
also takes the right path. They were one of the first districts in the country
to professionalize their pay structure, meaning that on average their teachers
earn more than their peers in other jurisdictions and effective teachers
realize their earning potential early in their careers. There are clear career
progression and growth ladders as teachers become more effective, with special
recognition for the most effective educators.

Like any
true trailblazer, Harrison has improved its
system since its initial implementation in 2009. They’re figuring out how to do
it better and how to ensure that the bar for success is set high but still
attainable, how to expand the evaluation to even more school-based staff, how
to improve the assessments—but the point is they’re committed to moving forward
because they know it’s what’s best for kids. And in doing so, Harrison
provides a model that other districts would be wise to consider.

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