Colorado Teachers Pay: An Approach for National Viewing

Public Sector.BlogThree of the largest school districts in Colorado continue to experiment (and at times, struggle) with teachers’ pay. Compensation is important not only as a means of attracting and retaining the best teachers, but also because of Senate Bill 191. Passed in 2010, this bill requires Colorado school districts to create annual evaluations for teachers that tie their pay to student test scores.

The three largest school districts, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson County, are pushing to change the criteria for teacher pay increases. But change can have unintended consequences. Some say that the new methods, which reward teachers when students do well, are likely to retain the best teachers. Others aren’t as sure.

Take John L. Myers, of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, who believes designing a compensation system is a more complex process. He says pay systems need teacher collaboration and must include factors beyond test scores. Officials in Boulder Valley School District believe the research shows that performance pay doesn’t work; it’s too simplistic. The data don’t paint a clear picture, because districts don’t track the same outcomes, and factors beyond compensation may be contributing to success.

Jefferson County’s schools are near the end of a federally funded pilot program that tested performance incentives and changes to teacher support. So far, analysis of the project shows that the supports provided to teachers—such as creating leadership opportunities, professional learning communities with coaches, and a system for constructive feedback—have increased student performance. Meanwhile, financial incentives are not showing a strong positive impact on teacher performance. Jefferson County officials say they believe the best and fastest results will happen with both components in the mix.

So far, no clear answer emerges, leaving school districts in the same boat as other employers: Creating compensation plans that have an eye toward the market, internal equity, and performance. This is a puzzle not likely to be solved soon.