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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”