Denver teacher-pay plan marks shift in education

The move to tie pay to pupil achievement marks a 'sea change' in

It's a practice deeply ingrained in America's business culture, everywhere from the factory floor to the glass-walled executive suite: Pay should be linked, at least in part, to job performance.

Everywhere, that is, except the classroom. There, the idea has long been resisted, by everyone from school administrators to teachers.

But a pioneering experiment in Denver's public schools could begin to change that. Starting this year, some teachers in elementary and middle schools can earn bonuses if their students perform well on standardized tests.

Just as striking, it was the teachers themselves - not disgruntled parents or the city school board - who initially voted in favor of the pilot program. The Denver Board of Education is expected to approve the plan tonight as a component of the overall teacher contract.

National policymakers will be watching the two-year experiment to see if the pay-for-performance policy can serve as a model for incentive programs across the US.

"There is a sea change in the public mood and [among] teachers and the official unions," says Christopher Cross, president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education. "There is an opportunity for Denver to be a place to build on."

If the program proves to be successful, seniority would no longer be a factor in determining a teacher's pay. Criteria for moving up the salary ladder would be the teacher's level of education and student achievement. Under the plan, that would mean "a majority" of a class must show a pre-determined level of improvement.

"You should be rewarding them not on years of service alone but on ability to teach," Mr. Cross says. "One thing that needs to be done is reward [teachers] for content knowledge."

Starting pay here begins at $24,867. The average salary is $37,240. Educators with more than four decades of service earn just over $56,000 annually.

The idea of linking pay to student performance has been vigorously opposed in the past by most teachers unions, which argue that teachers can't control the many variables, such as class size and teaching resources, that affect the classroom. In the recent Detroit teachers' strike, which involved a number of complex issues, teachers refused to even consider a merit-pay program.

Nevertheless, the idea of linking pay to performance is slowly catching on. Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Columbus, Ohio, Douglas County, Colo., Minneapolis, and Rochester, N.Y. are currently experimenting with performance-based programs.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the US, has traditionally opposed merit-pay programs that are based on peer review, but is withholding judgment on the Denver pilot.

"This [Denver] program doesn't have those same flaws," says NEA President Bob Chase. "It is very different from those traditional merit-pay programs, which have a long and disastrous history."

About 450 teachers in 15 district schools will be selected to participate in the pilot program. Teachers initially get $500 to participate and, if they make their goals, can make up to $1,000 the first year.

"The money is not so large as to bankrupt the district, but it's large enough to compensate teachers for the extra time they'll be putting in," says Jewell Gould, director of research at the America Federation of Teachers in Washington, the other major teachers union.

At the end of two years, a panel will examine the program's efficacy, and experts will determine whether the plan can substantively improve the education of all Denver students.

Still, educators see some drawbacks. Mr. Gould calls the plan better than most, but is concerned about basing teacher performance on how well students do on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Schools participating in the pilot will be divided into three groups. In the first, teachers will use the Iowa exam as the basis for developing course curricula for students. In the second, each teacher will modify the curricula as he or she sees fit. The last group of teachers will identify and receive training they need to better serve their students.

Gould and others support the idea of additional training for teachers, which they say benefits educators as well as students.

While educators praise the Denver teachers for trying to find solutions to low student performance, they are divided on whether this particular plan will work.

"No one knows whether or not performance-based pay of any kind will have the positive effect of improving student achievement," says the NEA's Mr. Chase. But "the beauty of this program is that it's seen as a pilot program."

Key to determining if the pilot will become a full-blown program is controlling the extra personnel it takes to run such a program.

"One of teachers' greatest fears is the bureaucracy," says Kathy Christie at the Education Commission of the States based in Denver. Other concerns include subjectivity in the evaluation process and teacher inability to influence variables such as class schedules, parental involvement, the composition of classes, and education spending.

Chase, meanwhile, cautions other schools from adopting the program without seeing results.

"One of the problems we have in education is that new ideas come along all the time and are automatically jumped on, whether there's a proven positive effect or not," he says. "I think that's a mistake."

While pay incentives are an important way to motivate and keep teachers, Chase says, so is giving them more responsibility, lowering class sizes, and offering professional development.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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