Praise, caution for Harrison pay-for-performance plan

Allan Odden

The Harrison (CO) School District’s compensation plan, profiled in a recent Fordham report, represents another of yet a few compensation plans that totally redesign the actual teacher salary schedule. In this way, it joins Denver and Washington, D.C. in designing and implementing complete overhauls in how teachers are paid. These three districts are different from the dozens and dozens of other teacher compensation changes, most supported by the federal TIF program, which simply left the old schedule in place and added bonuses on top of them for teachers who worked in high poverty schools, in subjects where there are shortages (e.g., math and science) or for improving student achievement. Though such bonuses programs are needed and represent augmentations to how teachers are paid, the real breakthroughs will come when the overall salary schedule is redesigned, as Harrison has done.

The Harrison plan reflects the kind of new teacher salary schedule I have been recommending for nearly two decades – one that drops the current years of experience that trigger the bulk of salary increases and replaces them with metrics that reflect a teacher’s instructional expertise and impact on student learning (see my new book, Improving Student Learning When Budgets Are Tight, Corwin, 2012). Cincinnati was the first district to try such a new schedule, but the program collapsed as glitches in the new evaluation system emerged. It proposed to pay teachers largely on the basis of a performance-based evaluation score; though the compensation element was dropped, the evaluation system is still operating in the district, with teachers with higher scores producing more student learning gains.

The new Harrison plan provides salary bands, with each salary band linked to an effectiveness metric, so the higher the effectiveness score, the higher the salary. In this way the new schedule provides the highest salaries to teachers who are the most effective in producing student learning.

The effectiveness scores, like those being developed in many states and districts across the country, are derived from measures of both a teacher’s instructional practice and multiple measures of impact on student performance. Such multiple measures will generally lead to relatively stable and defendable effectiveness scores, which can be used in a salary schedule; I’d also tie tenure to an effectiveness level.

I have four major cautions and suggestions for the Harrison plan:

First, the system provides seven different effectiveness levels and thus seven salary bands. Psychometrically, it is difficult to have more than five such levels and the district will need to convince teachers that a one-point score difference should translate into placement into a higher or lower effectiveness level, and thus large salary difference. I have recommended that states and districts use a five-point scale.

Second, I would put a few experience steps inside each salary band so that teachers can earn a modest salary increase while working to enhance their effectiveness to the next higher level. But the top step in any salary band should be significantly below the first step in the next higher salary band so the prime signal is that higher salaries are earned by becoming more effective.

Third, I would add some salary for earning higher degrees but only degrees in the area of licensure. Though research shows that miscellaneous education units and degrees do not make a teacher more effective, research also shows that course work and degrees directly related to the area of licensure – e.g., a math or science degree for math and science teachers respectively – do improve teacher effectiveness. So totally throwing out rewards for degrees is tossing out an incentive that if controlled can help improve teacher effectiveness.

Finally, I would add incentives to the base salary schedule for: teaching in high need/high poverty schools, teaching in an area experiencing teacher shortages like math and science, and bonus programs based directly and solely on boosting student learning.

A redesigned salary schedule that provides the largest pay increases on the basis of demonstrated increases in an individual teacher’s effectiveness should be the form of the basic salary schedule of the future. If it were augmented with the above three incentive programs, a district would have a salary schedule that sent the right signals – get better at teaching, work in high poverty schools, get a license in subjects of high need like math and science, and produce increased student learning – and would finally align how teachers (as well as administrators) are paid with the core goals and needs of the education system.

Allan Odden is director of Strategic Management of Human Capital and professor emeritus of Education Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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