This guest blog post is from Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst and a former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Eric Lerum, StudentsFirst's Vice President for National Policy. In this post they analyze a Colorado school district's innovative approach to teacher compensation, profiled in Fordham's latest report, "Teacher Compensation Based on Effectiveness: The Harrison (CO) School District's Pay-for-Performance Plan."

StudentsFirst had the pleasure of working with teachers and a principal from Harrison, Colorado late last year. We assisted the New Jersey State Superintendent in organizing roundtables across the state on the proposed teacher evaluation system under development. The Harrison folks were passionate about their work and their success in elevating the teaching profession there. It was incredibly powerful to listen to these veteran educators talk about how they felt that their evaluation system treated them as professionals and how they relied on it as a tool to help them and their colleagues improve. The principal described the increased, targeted development she could provide to staff and how the system enabled her to build a team solely focused on raising their students’ achievement.

What strikes me most about the Harrison model and why I think it’s so significant is that it dispels so many of the myths we hear about why a reform like this can’t be done or why change like they’ve seen in Harrison can’t be implemented and replicated elsewhere. These are students like we see everywhere else—high poverty and from families who themselves went through an underperforming school system. In short, these students come to school with all the challenges we’re familiar with, and their teachers are expected to deliver results. This is also a regular public school system—these aren’t charter schools or special schools that have been given extra funding or programs or powers. For too many years, the district fell far short of meeting expectations, ranking near the bottom of the state in student achievement. In 2005, only 54 percent of Harrison students were proficient in reading.

Harrison set out not just to do something different, but rather to abolish the status quo.

Yet even with those challenges, in 2007, led by the bold vision of Superintendent Mike Miles, Harrison principals, teachers, central office staff, and board of education members went to work on creating something better. Harrison set out not just to do something different, but rather to abolish the status quo and completely refocus the district and its educators on what mattered most—raising student achievement.

We know that what matters most in school when it comes to raising student achievement and changing their life outcomes is having an effective teacher in every classroom. Multiple studies confirm this, and wisely we’re seeing states and districts across the country follow the research and adopt policies to establish meaningful evaluation systems that enable them to identify effective instruction and to treat teachers like professionals.

In that context, Harrison was a trailblazer. They created an evaluation system that was based equally on performance and student achievement. The framework they’ve created includes multiple measures for each category as well, meaning that no one measure—be it student growth on a particular assessment or performance in only one observational area—determines a teacher’s rating. Rather, the Harrison system provides a full picture of what’s happening in the classroom, with the teacher and with the kids. Further, busting yet another myth, Harrison’s evaluation system takes a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to evaluating teachers of all subjects and grade levels using objective measures of student learning growth, demonstrating that just because there’s not a state assessment already in place doesn’t mean it’s too complicated to come up with a fair and accurate measure of a teacher’s impact in the classroom.

Like any true trailblazer, Harrison has improved its system since its initial implementation in 2009.

At StudentsFirst, we strongly advocate that states and districts figure out how they’re going to measure educator effectiveness AND that they use that information to inform their decision making. Here, Harrison also takes the right path. They were one of the first districts in the country to professionalize their pay structure, meaning that on average their teachers earn more than their peers in other jurisdictions and effective teachers realize their earning potential early in their careers. There are clear career progression and growth ladders as teachers become more effective, with special recognition for the most effective educators.

Like any true trailblazer, Harrison has improved its system since its initial implementation in 2009. They’re figuring out how to do it better and how to ensure that the bar for success is set high but still attainable, how to expand the evaluation to even more school-based staff, how to improve the assessments—but the point is they’re committed to moving forward because they know it’s what’s best for kids. And in doing so, Harrison provides a model that other districts would be wise to consider.

Eric Lerum
Vice President of National Policy
Michelle Rhee
Founder and CEO