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Jeffco launches teacher performance pay

Jefferson County Public Schools on Thursday joined the national experiment in paying teachers differently, winning a $32.8 million federal grant for a five-year pilot in the district’s highest-poverty schools.

The plan, called Jeffco Strategic Compensation, is one of 62 proposals from 27 states to share in $442 million in Teacher Incentive Fund grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.

A second Colorado district – Colorado Springs 11 – won $15.1 million for its proposal. The two join several districts across the state, including Denver, Douglas and Eagle counties, and Harrison District 2, trying alternative pay plans based on factors other than years worked and college credits earned.

Scroll to bottom to see video from Thursday’s press conference.

In Jeffco, teachers in up to 20 schools will join a different salary structure with a new – in many cases, higher – base pay and the possibility of earning as much as $20,000 more each year based on evaluations and student growth. They’ll also get more planning time, additional mentoring and peer evaluators providing feedback.

Neither Superintendent Cindy Stevenson nor teachers’ union President Kerrie Dallman believe the extra money alone will impact student achievement, a point perhaps driven home by this week’s release of a study showing extra dollars for teachers made no difference in improving their students’ math scores.

“We pretty much unanimously doubt you’re going to suddenly find your super-secret lesson plans you’ve been hiding all this time and pull them out when we offer you more money,” Dallman told teachers at Kullerstrand Elementary in Wheat Ridge on Wednesday.

“What we’re interested in is, how do the additional supports that we provide to you impact student achievement?”

Key components of the plan, which are subject to change during the 2010-11 planning year, include:

Three-tiered pay structure

  • Tier 1 – Probationary teachers or those with up to three years of experience, would earn base pay of $40,000 and up to $10,000 in stipends for effective evaluations and meeting student growth goals
  • Tier 2 – Non-probationary teachers would earn base pay of $55,000 and up to $20,000 in stipends
  • Tier 3 – Mentor and master teachers, with eligibility criteria to be determined, would earn base pay of $80,000 and up to $20,000 more in stipends and for working a longer school year

Additional supports

  • Teachers in pilot schools would receive an additional planning period each week
  • Teachers in pilot schools would be observed more frequently by both administrators and peer evaluators; they would have some say in their evaluators
  • All evaluators would participate in a five-day training prior to beginning observations
  • Pilot schools would receive one master teacher, who has no assigned classroom, for every 20 teachers and one mentor teacher, who works part-time in a classroom, for every 10 teachers
  • Pilot schools would receive an additional half-time assistant principal and an additional teacher to fill in for the mentor teachers and for other teachers during their additional planning periods

Encouraging teachers, schools to sign on

Wednesday’s talk at Kullerstrand capped five weeks of informational meetings by district and union leaders at 24 schools selected for possible participation in the pilot.

To be eligible, at least 50 percent of a school’s students must qualify for federal lunch assistance, an indicator of poverty. Kullerstrand’s poverty rate is 77 percent; Jeffco’s district average is 29 percent.

Federal rules set that eligibility bar. In addition, to join the pilot, 75 percent of a school’s full-time licensed faculty must vote yes in a secret ballot.

So far, four schools have voted. Three – O’Connell Middle School and Green Mountain Elementary, both in Lakewood, and Wilmore-Davis Elementary in Wheat Ridge – have joined while Arvada K-8 declined.

The other schools are expected to vote within the next 30 days.

At two schools earlier this week, Kullerstrand and Lawrence Elementary in Wheat Ridge, Stevenson, Dallman and pilot project manager Kristy Parsons spent up to two hours answering teachers’ questions.

“This scares me,” said a veteran teacher at Lawrence, and a co-worker was blunt:

“In order for us to buy in, you’ve got to make it safe for us,” she said. “I can’t jump unless I’m protected.”

Dallman agreed the pilot represents a major change in how Jeffco teachers are paid.

“We’re a union that negotiated a single salary schedule and we’ve maintained it since 1962,” she told them. “There’s two really great things on the single salary schedule – you know what’s expected of you to earn more money and it’s perceived as being fair, meaning we can’t pay him more money than we pay you if you have the same experience and expertise.”

But, she added, “The game is changing and it’s changing dramatically.”

Dallman pointed to the new educator effectiveness law that will soon require 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be tied to student academic growth.

Stevenson noted a recent Gallup poll showing widespread public support of merit pay for teachers. It found 75 percent of public school parents believe teachers’ salaries should be “very/somewhat closely tied” to their students’ achievement.

“We’re the largest district in the state,” Dallman told teachers at Kullerstrand, “and before something is imposed on us I think it’s really important that teachers’ voices are at the table as those decisions are being made.”

‘Our goal is not to hurt any teacher’

One way that district and union leaders sought to assuage teachers’ fears about the pilot is by highlighting their partnership.

They’ve worked on a merit pay plan since 2007, with funding from sources such as the Rose Community Foundation and a $485,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Education.

Parsons, the project leader, is a middle school science teacher who’s spent the past five years on the union’s bargaining team.

“We’ve done this jointly all along,” she tells teachers.

She also emphasizes that components of the plan will be worked out this year by committees of teachers and administrators in the participating pilot schools.

This appears to frustrate some teachers who want to know exactly what participation would mean.

“All of those decisions have to be made by the pilot schools that are going to live it,” Parsons told teachers at Kullerstrand. “That’s why we’re not telling you those rules, we want you to help develop them.”

That includes substantial details such as the eligibility criteria for master and mentor teachers.

Parsons said the original plan already has undergone substantial changes based on feedback.

“We could come in and say, here’s our plan. But we already tried that on a few things and we messed up,” she said. “We did not take into account all the individual situations in each building.”

For example, she initially believed $55,000 was a good base salary for non-probationary teachers in the pilot schools because data showed their average pay was $54,000.

Then she discovered 33 teachers in the 24 pilot schools already make $75,000, the proposed maximum. So they risk losing money if they join the pilot – but if they don’t join, they have to leave their schools.

Lisa Suomi, O'Connell Middle School teacher
Lisa Suomi, O'Connell Middle School teacher

“The intent is not to drive experienced teachers out of the building,” said Dallman, so Jeffco will ask the grant’s evaluator, Mathematica Policy Research, about ways to hold onto those teachers without penalizing them.

“Our goal is not to hurt any teacher in the system,” she said. “We don’t want any teachers making more and causing other teachers to make less.”

For some teachers, the pilot seems a clear win – a base pay of $40,000 for probationary teachers easily tops Jeffco’s $33,000 starting pay.

Others see the pilot as rewarding work they’re already doing.

Lisa Suomi, a reading teacher at O’Connell Middle School, isn’t sure she’ll make more money under the pilot because she’s near the max. But she is among the 85 percent of O’Connell teachers who voted to join.

“I am very excited about the collaborative approach to setting group goals and working together to improve our students’ success,” she said.

She also noted that the school’s staff already is data-focused, one aspect required by the grant.

“We at O’Connell work very hard,” Suomi said. “We truly as a staff believe that, since we are already doing a lot of this, then why not be compensated for the work we’re already doing?”
See video clips from Thursday’s press conference announcing the grant:

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