District walks the talk on performance pay

Harrison Superintendent Mike Miles with students at Monterey Elementary School

COLORADO SPRINGS – In a little less than four years, Mike Miles has upended a district known mostly for poverty and poor performance and created a home for some of the state’s boldest education reforms.

This week, even as critics lament the timidity of the state’s Race to the Top effort around teacher quality, Harrison School District 2 is preparing to launch a merit-pay plan that differs markedly from longer-running and better-known efforts in Denver and Douglas County.

Incentives play no part in the plan created by Miles, the superintendent here since 2006. There are no bonuses for teaching in struggling schools. Teachers don’t pocket a couple thousand bucks more if their students do better than expected on state tests.

Instead, teachers in Harrison will soon have their entire salaries based on a combination of their annual evaluations and their students’ academic progress.

No longer will teachers get annual raises for another year on the job or for taking more college classes – the way most districts in Colorado and across the country pay their instructors.

These changes are made easier by the fact that Harrison teachers do not have collective bargaining rights.

Once the new plan launches, Miles estimates only about 20 percent of teachers will get a raise every year. But starting pay will be higher and those raises, when they come, will be bigger – $3,000 to $4,000 initially and then $6,000 to $10,000.

“In almost any district in Colorado, even if your evaluation is not satisfactory, unless you are removed from the classroom, you will get a raise,” Miles said. “That is the key question – if you’re not proficient, why should you get the same exact advancement as a proficient teacher?”

A new career ladder

Teachers in Harrison District 2, which enrolls 11,000 students just south of Colorado Springs District 11, now start at $32,914 and can make up to $68,039 if they earn a doctorate and work 27 years.

Under the new plan, teachers start at $35,000 and can earn up to $90,000.

There are nine levels for teachers under the new plan, from “Novice” to “Master.”

“It is possible for a person to go from year to year and make it from novice to master in nine years,” Miles said. “That is unlikely. The performance standards are pretty high.”

Harrison Superintendent Mike Miles

Moving from one level to the next gets progressively harder. For the first step, from “Novice” to “Progressing I,” a teacher needs only a satisfactory evaluation. Every other step requires evidence of student academic progress.

After a teacher achieves level 4 or “Proficient,” which pays $48,000, other factors are considered, such as whether a teacher is showing leadership by coaching or mentoring others.

“What we’re saying is, you have to be good at your classroom stuff, you have to be good at achievement,” Miles said, “but if you want to make the higher money, you’ve got to be a leader, you’ve got to contribute, you’ve got to keep learning.”

Continuing education does matter on the new ladder. To get to $90,000, a teacher needs at least a master’s degree as “evidence of lifelong learning,” another factor considered at the higher end.

Paying for the plan

Principals in the Harrison district’s 25 schools are now working on placing their teachers on one of those nine levels.

No current teacher will make less under the new system, even if they’re placed at a lower level. And, no teacher will get a raise of more than $8,000 in the initial placement round.

“Everybody who’s been here one year, next year, they’ll be making $38,000,” Miles said. “So already, there’s going to be a huge pay increase on the earlier end of the scale.”

The plan is expected to cost $1 million more per year, taken largely from stipends and bonuses now paid to teachers.

Up to $350,000 will come from eliminating the extra pay given to secondary teachers who serve as department chairs. Another $250,000 will come from getting rid of the rewards given to teachers who are absent fewer than seven days during the school year.

“We’re saying look, like any other professional, you shouldn’t need attendance incentives,” Miles said. “If you want to do well, come to work.”

Harrison has 710 teachers and 90 percent – or 640 to 650 – will be paid in the new system starting this fall. The district is still figuring out a plan for those in specialized areas such as speech pathologists.

Based on estimated teacher placements, 15 to 20 percent of Harrison’s teachers will not see a difference in pay next year. Of those who do, the average raise will be $2,200 to $2,300.

Another 15 to 20 percent are expected to be placed in the highest levels, earning at least $54,000.

How achievement is measured

Harrison District 2 is just south of Colorado Springs District 11

Placement – and advancement – under the plan is based on combining an evaluation of a teacher’s classroom performance and a review of student achievement.

The two components are worth roughly equal in advancing in the first two levels – so a “Progressing” on an evaluation and a “Proficient” on the achievement review will land a teacher in the middle, or the “Progressing II” level.

But to reach the proficient level, a teacher must be proficient in both evaluation and achievement.

Harrison’s achievement review is multi-faceted, relying on national, state, district and school tests. Each review has eight areas and adds up to a total of 48 points.

In all but one area, where the teacher picks a goal, the teacher gets to choose the best of several different ways of looking at the results.

For example, with the state CSAP exams, the teacher can pick results of her class by status – at least 50 percent of students passed the exam, for example. Or she can pick results by growth – the median growth percentile of the class was 50 or higher in each discipline taught.

One area looks at schoolwide results, rather than a single class, and other areas consider “academic peer groups,” where students in a class are compared to other students with similar academic progress.

In other words, it’s complex.

“Frankly, it’s over 100 pages and … it does initially overwhelm you,” said Laura Stephens, a social studies teacher at Sierra High School and the president of the Harrison Education Association.

Union approval not required

In Harrison, Miles does not need the union’s approval.

School board members have repeatedly approved the plan as it’s moved from concept to paper and, in a vote earlier this month, launched it officially for fall 2010.

Deborah Hendrix, the board’s president, and two other incumbents on the five-member board were re-elected in the midst of talks about the plan.

“We did not back off moving forward with this because of the elections,” Hendrix said. “All three of us were re-elected with a very good margin and many of our conversations with voters were very encouraging.”

Neither Stephens nor Mike Stahl, head of the Pikes Peak Education Association, which includes Harrison, said they oppose the plan.

But, “We do feel like it’s been dictated to us,” Stephens said, “even though we may embrace it.”

Stahl said teachers, if asked what they would do with $1 million, would never have said, “Pay us more.”

“I don’t think that’s the motivator for teachers,” he said. “I think they would have said, why don’t you reduce my class size? Or, why don’t you take something off my plate? Not, would you pay us more?”

He also points out that research on whether merit pay boosts student achievement is inconclusive.

“I’m not saying I’m opposed to it necessarily,” Stahl said. “I just think that a greater level of collaboration means a greater level of success and there hasn’t been that. It was a done deal the minute it came out past his lips.”

Building up to merit pay

While public talks about the pay plan began last fall, Miles said the reforms he started nearly four years ago have set the stage.

One of the key pieces, which has drawn attention across the state, is a dramatic change in how teachers are evaluated.

Harrison School Board President Deborah Hendrix

State law requires teachers be observed in their classroom only once or twice a year and that they be given one of two ratings – satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

The result is that few teachers or districts take them seriously. An Ed News analysis found nearly 100 percent of teachers in Colorado’s largest districts were rated satisfactory in each of the past three years.

But in Harrison, Miles has made instructional leadership the focus of principals’ jobs – they must observe teachers in their classrooms eight to 16 times each year.

On a recent Wednesday at Harrison’s Bricker Elementary, Principal Amy McCord visited several classrooms, clipboard in hand, marking “spot observation” forms that would later go to teachers.

Last February, 73 percent of classroom teachers in Harrison said the instructional feedback they received “mostly” or “definitely” helped them improve their instruction.

The focus on instruction has been a change for many principals – a little less than half are new since Miles became superintendent.

“There was a huge philosophical shift on how we do business as administrators and what our role is,” said Carmel Middle School Principal Tina Vidovich. “A lot of things didn’t go away, it certainly did add to what we were doing. But I think it set our priorities straight.”

‘We’re ready’

A closer scrutiny of classroom work is linked with a more nuanced evaluation tool.

For Harrison teachers, there’s still an unsatisfactory rating but satisfactory now has six different possibilities, from progressing to proficient to exemplary.

Last year, 22 percent of probationary teachers in Harrison who received evaluations were not proficient. Ten percent of non-probationary teachers – meaning they’d been in the classroom at least three years – also were not proficient.

For Miles, the logical next step is to pay teachers differently based on those different evaluation results.

“The reason why this is pay for performance is that you actually will get compensated differently,” he said. “One of the philosophical things we have to get over in our profession is we are so tied to equity … and it is so hard for some teachers to say, look, I’m getting a raise and that person isn’t.”

Adding achievement into the mix makes sense because the district has created an assessment system and trained principals and teachers in using the data, he said.

Even electives teachers use tests and are being included. Art teachers across the district, for example, assign their students a common art project; out-of-district art teachers then score them.

“You should not tie compensation to evaluation unless the rest of these things are in place,” Miles said. “If you’re not giving instructional feedback, there’s no way to have an effective evaluation system. If you don’t have an effective evaluation system then you won’t have a good professional development plan. If you don’t have instructional leadership, you can’t do any of these.

“We have worked on this for three and a half years, four years, so we are ready to tie these two together,” he said. “People think it’s just throwing one more thing on top of a broken system and it ain’t going to work. But our system is aligned.”

To learn more:

Click here to see a snapshot of Harrison District 2’s demographics and student performance.

Click here to read Harrison Superintendent Mike Miles’ description of the new pay plan

Click here to see brief descriptions of four other merit pay plans in Colorado.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.