Denver Measure Would Link Teacher Pay to Performance

Denver residents will vote Tuesday on whether to approve a far-reaching plan to pay teachers extra based on their students' performance. School districts across the country are under pressure to raise test scores, and they are watching the vote closely.

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American teachers generally get paid based on how many years they've taught and how much college and graduate level education they have. Tomorrow voters in Denver will decide on a plan that would link teachers' paychecks to some other factors, including their students' report cards. It's one of several efforts across the country to link pay to performance. Andrea Dukakis reports from Denver.

ANDREA DUKAKIS reporting:

Walk into his classroom and it's pretty clear that Don Diehl has his work cut out for him with his fifth-graders.

Mr. DON DIEHL (Teacher): I'd like you to take out your dry erase boards and your dry erase markers. We're going to do some mental math.

(Soundbite of children talking)

Mr. DIEHL: Antonio's following directions without making a lot of extra noise. Thank you.

DUKAKIS: It's hard, but Diehl is just one of those teachers who seems to know how to make learning fun. Today the kids quiet down for a card game known as multiplication wrestling.

Mr. DIEHL: OK, she's using strategy. She's trying to create a high number in her 10s column in order to have a stronger team when she breaks those numbers apart, OK? That's who she's going to beat her wrestling partner, OK? And, you guys, this is actually beginning algebra. You don't even know it, but it is.

DUKAKIS: Diehl is somewhat of an anomaly at Fairview Elementary. It's in a poor, isolated section of the city across from a large housing project. Diehl has stuck around here for eight years. Under the proposal on the Denver ballot known as ProComp, teachers who choose to work at schools at Fairview would receive a bonus. Fairview Principal Norma Giron says that would make her job easier.

Ms. NORMA GIRON (Fairview Elementary Principal): There have been many years that I have no one applying for positions. They start looking at, oh, you know, Fairview has the lowest scores. Fairview is in the most dangerous neighborhood. They don't even give us a chance.

DUKAKIS: Teachers would also be rewarded for professional development like teacher training classes. But perhaps most important, they would be paid extra for student achievement. Several times a year teachers would meet with the principal to come up with learning goals for each child. If the principal decides that a teacher has met those goals, the teacher would get a bonus. For Diehl, who makes about $55,000 a year, the plan would mean an additional $2,000 on top of his salary.

Mr. DIEHL: It does give an extra push. You know, it's like I really want to meet that goal, because maybe I want to go on a trip in the summer, so I could use that extra little pay.

DUKAKIS: Several states already pay teachers more for their performance. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has proposed one such plan and several other states and school districts are considering them. Some experts say Denver's plan is uniquely designed to recognize many types of teachers and teaching styles. But Robert Madison, who teaches at Denver's South High School, is skeptical. He thinks when it comes to teaching, performance is tough to measure.

Mr. ROBERT MADISON (Teacher): It's a very subjective, nuanced, intangible thing that teachers do and I don't think it lends itself to quantitative analysis very easily. Teaching is an art. It's not a science and it's definitely not a business.

DUKAKIS: School districts around the country will be paying close attention to Colorado's initiative. The federal No Child Left Behind Act puts intense pressure on them to raise test scores. Policy-makers will be watching to see if Denver's approach is a step in that direction.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Dukakis in Denver.

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