Douglas County School District Reinvents Teacher Pay to Reward the Very Best Through an innovative performance-based pay system, Douglas County School District (DCSD) is one of the first districts in America to truly address the lack of professional compensation for teachers.
“Our goal is to attract and retain the very best teachers and employees,” said DCSD Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen. “We know that the number one factor in a student’s success is an excellent teacher.”
While the concept of the plan is simple – reward outstanding employees with pay raises and bonuses – the development and implementation of a quality framework has set a new precedent in education.
In 2009, the voters of Douglas County swept a reform-minded Board of Education into office. The newly elected Directors ran on a platform to provide universal choice to parents, establish financial stability and pay teachers based on performance.
The new Board hired Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen to implement its vision. Fagen immediately set forth to develop a systemic blueprint for change and a strategic plan. “Too often in education, we tinker at the edges. In Douglas County we had the opportunity to implement systemic change. We examined every aspect of our District from classroom instruction to professional pay for teachers with one guiding principal – to do what is best for our students,” said Fagen.
At the heart of change in Douglas County is the charge to provide every student with a world-class education that allows them to pursue the college or career path of their choice. Great teachers are critical to providing a world-class education, so DCSD set a goal of retaining and attracting the very best teachers from across the nation. Enter Chief Human Resources Officer Brian Cesare.
In a bold move, Fagen hired Cesare to lead the HR team and develop a system to pay teachers based on performance and market forces. Unlike most school districts, Cesare’s background and experience is in the private sector, not in education.
Upon his arrival at DCSD, Cesare found that like most school districts, Douglas County employed a ‘step and lane’ program to pay teachers. Developed in the 1900s, the plan allowed teachers to attain a job and increase their salary based on years in the job rather than any measure of performance.
“Market pay and pay-for-performance are standard for the private sector. Efficiency and excellence are required to meet the demands of the customer and succeed in the marketplace,” said Cesare. “Education was just the opposite, typically all teachers are paid the same whether they are average or outstanding and whether they are PE teachers or in hard-to-fill positions such as special education teachers.”
Fagen noted that the change was not as simple as it might sound to some. “Changing a centuries-old practice is a challenge, but it simply had to be done – we know it’s best for our great teachers and ultimately it’s what is best for our students.”
One of the first steps in the process was to develop an evaluation that discerned teacher performance.
“We value our teachers as professionals, and it was extremely important to us to involve them in the process of change,” continued Fagen. Hundreds of DCSD teachers worked together to develop a new evaluation tool that provides teachers with clearly defined expectations and criteria on which to judge. The result of that work is CITE (Continuous Improvement of Teacher Effectiveness).
CITE not only determines teacher performance based on a scale of effectiveness, the tool is also differentiated for 27 different types of teachers. “We know that we have many different categories of teachers,” continued Fagen. “Consider the work of a first-grade teacher compared to a high school art teacher. We want evaluations to not only establish performance but to inform professional development for every teacher, and that means developing different outcomes for different positions.”
Fagen also worked hard to gain community support for change. She and her team visited with chambers of commerce, Rotary clubs, economic development organizations and parents to discuss the plan and win support. Ultimately, a number of organizations publicly endorsed the pay-for-performance system. “It was very important to us to have the support of the community and local employers,” said Fagen.
After two years of implementation, the results speak for themselves. Over the last two years, DCSD has offered some of the biggest raises along the Colorado Front Range. In addition, the District’s retention numbers are very impressive. In 2014, DCSD had a total teacher turnover rate of 13.1%. Perhaps most impressive, the district retained 94% of teachers rated as highly effective and 90.4% of teachers rated as effective. There was a 100% turnover of ineffective teachers and a nearly 30% turnover of partially effective teachers.
“We are very pleased to say that we are retaining the very best teachers and rewarding them with significant raises,” said Cesare. “The higher turnover in the ineffective and partially effective categories allows us the opportunity to get the best teachers in front of our students.”
In addition to successfully implementing pay for performance, Cesare developed a market-pay system that allowed the district to offer higher salaries in order to recruit hard to fill positions, such as special education teachers. The system is based on pay bands that categorize positions based on market forces.
“Introducing market pay to education has been a challenge,” continued Cesare. “Our system is based on quality supply and demand, not value. We have really emphasized that point to our teachers and to potential hires. We value every position but we rely on market forces to set salaries.” Beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, all new teachers were hired using the market-based pay system, which takes a wider picture of a candidate’s education, certificates, experience and skill to determine a baseline offer.
“It is important to have the freedom to look at different factors,” continued Cesare. "Being able to weight those factors and create a pay that mimics the uniqueness of the position, allows us to attract and retain the best people. That is very important to us.”
The combination of an outstanding work environment that rewards performance and the use of market forces is delivering a quality candidate pool to the District. “In hard to fill positions such as special education, positions have gone unfilled in the past due to a lack of quality candidates,” explained Cesare. “This year we had great candidate pools and were able to hire outstanding teachers in all of our traditionally hard-to-fill categories.”
The success achieved by DCSD is not measured by numbers alone. School districts across the country have sought advice and information about the new pay system. “We want to be a model for the nation. We know our students are the future and we aspire to provide them with the very best educational opportunities available. That means attracting and retaining the very best teachers,” said Fagen.