Denver Teacher-Pay Plan Marks Shift in Education the Move to Tie Pay to Pupil Achievement Marks a 'Sea Change' In

By James N. Thurman and Kris Axtman, writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

Denver Teacher-Pay Plan Marks Shift in Education the Move to Tie Pay to Pupil Achievement Marks a 'Sea Change' In


James N. Thurman and Kris Axtman, writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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