September 22, 2016

Lessons Learned from 10 Years of Denver Public School’s Teacher Compensation System

In 2006, Denver voters approved a $25 million annual property tax increase to fund an innovative teacher compensation system for Denver Public School (DPS) teachers called the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp. ProComp promised to align teacher pay and student learning. It’s probably safe to say that ten years later, ProComp is likely not in the place that its authors and advocates hoped it would be.

Soon Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association will negotiate changes to ProComp and how DPS teachers are paid. Not so serendipitously A+ Colorado, a Colorado research and advocacy organization, is out with a new report that details the history of ProComp and offers recommendations for improving it.

It’s worth analyzing the results of ProComp and considering its future because the system was at the forefront of attempting to connect teachers’ compensation to students’ academic achievement. With help from federal programs like the Teacher Incentive Fund, many districts have since tried similar teacher compensation tactics and others are in negotiations to give it a go. Why? Just like in any other profession, compensation is an incentive employers can use to attract, retain, and leverage human capital talent. But in education, there are a lot of complicating factors that make changing compensation structures difficult. So learning lessons from performance-pay system pioneers like Denver’s ProComp is useful for all districts doing this work.

Here are a few reasons why ProComp isn’t living up to it’s promise:

It’s unclear if ProComp impacts student achievement. Student achievement in DPS is up from 2006. But there is little evidence that ProComp is a cause of rising student achievement or is even correlated with it.

Teachers who lead students to higher academic achievement do not receive higher compensation under ProComp. One study found that due to how base salaries and bonuses work in ProComp, teachers whose students demonstrated the highest growth in math earned similar amounts to teachers whose students demonstrated the lowest growth in math.

Denver Comp Figure

Click to enlarge. Image via “A Fair Share: A New Proposal for Teacher Pay in Denver”

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September 21, 2016

States Need to Get Real on Testing Tradeoffs Before Making Another Big Switch

risksignJust a few years ago, it seemed like most of the country was heading towards common state assessments in math and reading. Two groups of states won federal grant funds to create higher-quality tests; these became the PARCC and Smarter Balanced test consortia. Now, despite the demonstrated rigor and academic quality of those tests, the testing landscape is almost as fractured as it was before, with states pursuing a variety of assessment strategies. Some states in the consortia are still waffling. Others that have left are already scrapping the tests they made on their own with no idea of what they’ll do next.

States should think carefully before going it alone or introducing a new testing overhaul without strong justification. There are some big tradeoffs at play in the testing world, and a state might spend millions on an “innovative” new test from an eager-to-please vendor only to find that it has the same, or worse, issues as the “next generation” tests they tossed aside.

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September 20, 2016

Hiring Teachers After the School Year Starts Harms Students

Somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of all new teachers are hired after the school year begins. These late hires come in with lower college GPAs, are less likely to have prior teaching experience, and are less likely to be licensed in the area they’ll be asked to teach. Late hires tend to be concentrated in certain low-performing schools. And, since they tend to have higher turnover rates, late hires also contribute to higher churn in those schools.

TNTP began documenting these trends more than a decade ago, but the process through which teachers are hired largely remains a blind spot for education reform. Over the last few years, we’ve devoted far more attention and resources on the ways districts evaluate existing teachers and principals, while doing comparatively little to help districts improve the quality of educators coming into their schools. As part of Bellwether’s recent publication outlining 16 education policy ideas for the next president, I propose a new federal investment to help districts in transforming their hiring and on-boarding processes.

The problem is clear: District hiring processes are notoriously sluggish and bureaucratic, and schools often don’t even know how many openings they’ll have to fill in the coming school year until well into summer. This causes districts to scramble to find teachers right before the school year starts. A recent paper from John Papay and Matthew Kraft found that teachers who were hired after the school year started had a significant negative impact on student achievement. The results were equivalent to the loss of approximately two months of instruction for a typical middle school student.

Moreover, districts tend to outsource the role of screening, training, and recruiting new hires. Many teachers are hired without even demonstrating so much as a sample lesson plan. Even after selecting candidates, schools are unlikely to offer hiring bonuses or other incentives to land their top choices. Less than one in 10 school districts offers recruiting incentives for teachers or principals, and only one in six offers extra financial compensation for educators to work in shortage areas. Despite current cries of a national “teacher shortage,” districts act like the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to teachers, and they treat teachers as if they’re immune to financial incentives.

Teacher pay incentives remain uncommon

Graphic via Bellwether’s 2014 report, Teacher Evaluations in an Era of Rapid Change

Finally, districts have much to learn about how to successfully on-board new hires. Not enough districts offer mentoring or formal induction programs, and most districts throw teachers into the fire on the first day of school and expect them to sink or swim, rather than giving them lower-stakes practice time first. (Late hires make this effectively impossible.)

Some school districts, like Boston, MA; Spokane, WA; and Washington, DC, have been able to improve their teacher hiring processes, and their efforts could be spread to the rest of the country. There’s a clear model for how the federal government could help. For the last 10 years, it has offered competitive grants for districts to revamp their teacher evaluation and compensation systems. That theory of action has proved challenging for a number of political and methodological reasons, but the investment helped spur dramatic changes across schools and states.

There has been no similar effort to improve front-end hiring practices, even though it may be a more promising approach. Revamping school district hiring practices would give districts opportunities to plan more effectively, hire earlier in the year, and get teachers in low-stakes teaching opportunities before the school year begins. All this would, in turn, lead to more effectively run school systems, a more sane hiring process for teachers, and better outcomes for kids.

For more on this topic, or other ideas in the series, please read the full 16 for 2016: 16 Education Policy Ideas for the Next President


September 19, 2016

XQ Prize-Winning School Will Provide Educational Continuity for Disconnected Youth

RISE High, which just won $10 million in the XQ high school redesign competition, was created to address the unique needs of students facing disruptive life circumstances.

School instability is one of the biggest educational issues facing youth who experience crises like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. These youth often miss school frequently and switch schools repeatedly, and, subsequently, they face diminished long-term academic outcomes.

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 4.49.34 PMThere are a number of things that schools and districts can do to facilitate attendance and consistency for students whose educations are severely disrupted — things like rerouting school buses, sharing data across agencies, implementing wraparound services, and utilizing competency-based education — but few truly solve the physical challenge of getting students to and from school every day.

Until now. RISE High will have several physical sites, an online learning system, and a mobile resource center. Students will have the option to attend any one of the school’s physical or virtual sites, helping ensure students can access the day’s lessons and/or tutoring regardless of where they may be. The physical sites will be co-located with service providers, and the mobile unit will be equipped with hygiene products, cell phone chargers, and Internet access to solve some of the basic — and often overlooked — challenges these students face.

But RISE High will do more for these students than just meet them where they are physically. Because it is one school, it eliminates many of the common barriers that highly transient students face. Students will be able to maintain consistent enrollment in a single school but attend multiple sites—rather than un-enroll and re-enroll in a new school with each move. Students will not risk losing credits due to course incompatibility between schools or districts. Instead, RISE High will provide each student with a personalized learning plan and allow them to earn credit upon mastery of a unit. This type of competency-based learning can be powerful for students whose life circumstances make it challenging to regularly attend a traditional school with seat-time requirements. And students will have a single record of their coursework rather than a complicated file cobbled together by many schools over time, which can help facilitate high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

RISE High has incredible potential to increase the continuity and consistency of the school experiences of youth whose educations have been severely disrupted. With greater consistency comes greater educational success, and, ultimately, more promising life outcomes.


September 15, 2016

Why Quality Charter Authorizing Matters

Yesterday the XQ SuperSchools challenge — an initiative funded by Laurene Powell Jobs to catalyze the creation and growth of innovative, radically better high school models— announced awards of $100 million to 10 “super schools” across the country, including Washington, D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy.

As a member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), the body that authorizes charter schools in D.C., I’m always excited when one of our schools gains national recognition for the incredible work that so many of them are doing. But I’m particularly proud of Washington Leadership Academy’s award because of the path the school took to get here.

The first time that Washington Leadership Academy applied for a charter, DCPCSB rejected the application. The plan wasn’t thought through enough, and we had a lot of questions about who the school would actually serve and how its model would work. So we gave them feedback and encouraged them to come back the following year. And they did. With a much better plan. Which is what enabled them to win this prize.

This is a great story about how amazing the people leading Washington Leadership Academy are. Their grit, persistence, and willingness to change in response to feedback are a big part of what enabled them to win this award. But it’s also, in a small way, a good illustration of why quality charter authorizing makes a difference. Authorizers are not the glamorous people in education. And that’s as it should be. But at our best, we’re like your middle school English teacher who pushed you to do better because she knew you could and covered your paper with red ink until you learned grammar. In the end, she made a difference. Good authorizing has played a crucial role locally in improving charter quality and growing the supply of quality charter seats in Washington, D.C. And it has been crucial nationally to improving quality and student outcomes across the charter sector as a whole.