MERIT pay for teachers - a controversial and recurring theme in American education - is about to get a new test in Colorado that will be eyed across the nation.
The fastest-growing school district in the state is moving ahead with a plan that will tie teacher pay to performance in the classroom. The Douglas County School District, south of Denver, approved a performance-based pact this week that is considered one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the nation. It has already been approved by the local teachers' union.
The goal is to improve instruction and thus student learning.
Coming at a time when many people are dissatisfied with the quality of education and demanding more accountability, the plan is expected to draw the attention of educators, administrators, and the public.
``The plan pushes the idea farther than most I have looked at,'' says Kathie Christie, a researcher with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a policy study group. Under the pact, all teachers in the district would receive a 6.45 percent increase in their base salary this year as a reward for trying the new concept.
After that, and to a limited extent this year, salary increases would be based largely on a teacher's performance.
The plan has three categories for teacher evaluations: outstanding, proficient, and unsatisfactory. Teachers will be judged by a combination of peer, administration, and parent evaluations, as well as by teacher portfolios, to determine eligibility for the top designation.
Outstanding teachers will be paid one-time bonuses of $1,000 in addition to a raise based on funds available. Proficient teachers would receive just a raise. No increases would be granted to unsatisfactory teachers.
Additional pay could be earned by taking on extra responsibilities, such as sitting on a curriculum committee, or by acquiring special skills, such as improving computer knowledge.
Common education goals would be set for all of the schools in the system, which, if achieved, could result in further increases.
``The current pay system, where teachers get automatic pay raises for every year they get older, is not very popular with the general public,'' says Jack Christensen, president of the Douglas County School Board, which oversees 26 schools in Highlands Ranch, Castle Rock, and other suburbs south of Denver. ``This is a more equitable way to distribute money and hold teachers to some measure of accountability that hasn't existed in the past,'' he says.
What's unusual about the Douglas County plan, local educators and others say, is its broad-based evaluation approach. Like most performance-pay plans adopted in recent years, it uses teachers, parents, and even student surveys to evaluate teacher performance rather than just relying on an administrator, as early plans did.
It also tries to take a school-based approach, offering rewards to teachers if an entire institution achieves certain goals - such as improving student reading. Lynn Cornett, who has studied performance plans for the Southern Regional Education Board, a research group, says the ones that work best are those which change their entire pay structure to incorporate incentives and accomplish district goals, instead of offering merit raises as a side program. The Douglas County model appears to be the more sweeping kind.
Still, changes on paper don't guarantee success in practice. The more comprehensive the performance-pay program, the more administrative work is usually involved. Local officials will also have to overcome a bugaboo that has affected most all plans: achieving credible and consistent teacher evaluations. Unfairness in judging classroom performance, either real or perceived, has been one reason teacher unions have traditionally opposed merit-pay plans.
Problems of cost
Many states experimented with performance-based plans in the 1980s but later dropped them - not only because of the controversy over evaluations but also because of money. States have found it expensive to offer special grants to districts using the concept.
Today three states - Tennessee, Arizona, and Utah - provide money to schools that tie pay to performance. A few local districts around the country operate their own programs.
The Douglas County pact is the first of its kind in Colorado, though some 36 other districts in the state are studying the idea or have adopted limited incentive plans.
``The real challenge is going to be getting everything up and running,'' says Douglas Hartman, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which overwhelmingly approved the pact last week.
``We won't know how well the system works for five years,'' says Mr. Hartman.