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Fordham's latest report is a "how-to" guide for teacher compensation reform.

Pop quiz: Which school district is furthest ahead in designing and implementing a workable teacher evaluation system? Washington, D.C., with its IMPACT system? Denver, Colorado, with PRO-COMP? You’re getting warmer…

The correct answer, according to a brand-new paper from the Fordham Institute, is very likely the Harrison (CO) School District. Harrison is a high-poverty district of about 10,000 students near Colorado Springs. It has confronted the triple challenge of determining what elements are most valuable in a teacher’s overall performance (including but not limited to student growth on standardized tests), applying that determination to the district’s own teachers (all of them!), and then reshaping the teacher-salary system (with the teacher union’s assent!) to reward strong performance. Excellent teachers earn substantially more—and do so earlier in their careers—than their less effective peers.

Under the Harrison Plan, salaries for all teachers depend not on paper credentials or years spent in the classroom, but on what actually happens in their classrooms. “Step increases” based on longevity have been eliminated, as have cost of living raises. And professional development is tailored by evaluations to help teachers improve.

Harrison’s evaluation process is divided into two parts, with “performance” and “achievement” each representing half of a teacher’s overall score.

Performance is gauged via multiple observations of the teacher-in-action over the course of the school year. Some of these are conducted by the principal, others by external evaluators from other schools within Harrison. According to the report’s author, Superintendent Mike Miles, “All of the [observation] criteria are central to being an effective teacher. Who would disagree that preparation, use of data to inform instruction, quality instruction, and classroom environment are essential to being an effective teacher?"

Achievement is measured using student test results. The tests used depend on the grade level and academic subject. For example, state test results, results on the district’s quarterly exams, and scores on the district’s semester exams may each account for up to 25 percent (of the half that relates to achievement). The Harrison Plan is crafted to avoid putting too much emphasis on any one test. This means that state test results, for example, represent just one-eighth of a teacher’s overall evaluation. Student growth is what is mainly measured—and all test results used are norm-referenced or value-added. Finally, one-eighth of a teacher’s achievement score is tied to her school’s overall state rating, and one-eighth to progress toward a personal goal that she sets in concert with her supervisor. 

How does this work for subjects like art? The measurement for an elementary art teacher includes her students’ performance on the spring art project, results of the semester exams, and two art assessment sets, which include performance tasks. Art teachers face the same level of rigor in their evaluations as do the English and Math teachers.

When all is said and done, each Harrison teacher receives one of five ratings: Novice, Progressing, Proficient, Exemplary, and Master. Compensation rises with each rating gain and such gains, in turn, hinge on stronger performance and student achievement results. The district hopes to have more than 80 percent of its staff at the Proficient level or higher in the next few years. High-performing teachers in Harrison make more money faster than teachers in other Colorado districts. Down the road in Colorado Springs, for example, a new teacher takes about twelve years to reach $48,000, while in Harrison a strong performer can get there after just three years.

Note, though, that Harrison teachers receive little other money—no bonuses, stipends, or extra-duty pay, nor any increases tied to simple longevity or degrees earned. Compensation is based on performance, as are HR actions like professional development, probationary status, and dismissal decisions.

How much does this cost? The Harrison Plan was designed and implemented during a time when the district’s $107 million budget shrank by $12.5 million. The Daniels Fund in Colorado provided an $800,000 grant to develop the plan, but it’s designed to be self-sustaining—no need to seek new dollars—even as many of the district’s high-performing teachers see a spike in their salaries. According to Miles, “A pay-for-performance system cannot be sustainable if the plan is designed simply to provide teachers with more money.” The fact is, teacher pay is based on performance and in any given year some teachers will see a significant bump (up to $10,000), while others will not.

Miles, a former U.S. State Department diplomat and Army Ranger and current Broad Fellow, has led the Harrison district since 2006. Just two years into the implementation of the district’s pay-for-performance plan, he acknowledges that he can’t prove that it alone is driving Harrison’s successes. But successes there have been. For example, the district’s most recent average ACT scores were up two full points over the previous year; one elementary school’s third grade scored 100 percent proficient on Colorado’s state reading test.

Miles is adamant that raising student achievement can’t happen without excellent teachers—and that the district’s best teachers deserve the recognition and financial rewards that this plan offers. It also demonstrates that creating better teacher-evaluation systems is not as daunting as many think. In fact, Miles hopes that Harrison’s tale can “inspire others by our success and spare them the mistakes we made. While school districts vary widely and state laws differ, our philosophy is transferable and our approach is replicable.”

That hope is already beginning to be fulfilled, as such education eminences as Michelle Rhee and the National Council on Teacher Quality weigh in with accolades for the Harrison plan.

The chronicling of the Harrison Plan is an important contribution to the efforts underway in districts and states across the country to create high-quality teacher evaluation systems and rigorous teacher performance plans of their own. As Miles concludes,

At a time when districts are being prodded, incentivized, or forced to adopt pay-for-performance plans, we hope this ‘how-to’ guide will be a useful template that allows districts to seize the opportunity to recognize and reward teachers who are succeeding in the classroom.

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