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We Are All in This Together

BY CYNTHIA M. STEVENSON

Savvy superintendents know pay for performance is easy to talk about and tough to implement. Savvy superintendents know research paints a confusing picture when academic studies try to connect student learning to the reform of personnel pay systems.

Savvy superintendents attempt to explain to a public and governing board eager for simple solutions that altering one variable is rarely the key to dramatically raising the learning of children. Yet we never seem to give up trying. As educators, we change individual variables because of school board demands, statutory demands or public demands. Yet in the day-to-day rush of work, we rarely consider whole-system reform related to organizational variables such as pay for performance.

Controlling Change
Jefferson County, Colo., schools serve as home to 85,000 students and 5,000 teachers. We live west of Denver in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Six years ago, the district and the teachers’ union formed a unique partnership. We knew that policy changes in our schools were being mandated by noneducators, and we wanted to drive those changes.

We seized an opportunity to stop the madness by considering carefully how a new system of pay for teachers could create whole-system reform. The players in the district agreed on this point: If we wanted sustainable reform, then a collaborative approach would be required.

We considered how the variables of pay, teacher development, teamwork, goal setting and shared leadership interact to increase student achievement. The administration and the teachers’ union spent three years debating issues on how we might reform a century-old system of teacher compensation. At times, frustrations increased to the point that we nearly walked out on each other.

After debating and learning, Jeffco built a system that combined the variables of pay, evaluation, peer observation and feedback, teacher leadership and school-based teacher support. We received a $39 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant from the federal government to underwrite a five-year pilot in 20 of our high-poverty schools. We called the pilot Strategic Compensation and committed to evaluate with outside experts the multiple variables and their impact on student learning. The data from the pilot are contributing to the future of pay for teachers in our district. Note: This initiative is not just about pay but addresses the many factors in the system that affect student achievement.

Shared Responsibility
When Jeffco received its Teacher Incentive Fund grant, we looked backwards and realized that trust and collaboration are key variables in total-system reform. The trust and collaboration with our teachers’ union not only focused on pay for performance but became part of our culture.

What does that mean? We shared responsibility for the achievement of our students and the well-being of our employees. We shared in developing a budget that required a 3 percent reduction in pay for all employees. Our teachers’ union justified that reduction to its members. We were a seamless system that had shared interests. We were a system managing a system. Trust was central to success.

As our model of collaboration received attention, Jeffco fielded questions from outsiders that carried a tone of incredulity: “How did you do that? Where did you start?” Though we met with other school districts to discuss our process, few have followed our lead. That’s because collaboration is hard work, requiring players to give up power to gain more organizational influence. Trust makes you vulnerable and requires time, commitment and forgiveness. Trust can’t grow without strong personal relationships.

Our advice can be captured in four points:

Let common values guide your work together. We recognized we all cared about teachers and about kids. We spent enough time together to realize we wanted the same things. Our differences were about “how,” never “why.”

Make time to get to know each other as individuals. We had and still have moments of extreme disagreement. We all wanted to walk away from the process at times. But it is hard to vilify people when you know them as human beings.

Create a structure for ongoing dialogue. It takes time to build trust. You need structures that make you engage in dialogue. It is the most basic of human needs.

Model collaboration. All schools should receive the same information from the district and from the union. No one wins when employees hear different things from the district and from their union.

Advancing Jointly
What have we accomplished? We await the evaluation of changes in student achievement based on our systemic approach of changing pay along with other variables. We know we have implemented an effective peer-evaluation system, a new way to set student growth goals, new online data reports to guide professional development, specific evaluation rubrics and a different system of compensation.

We survived the most drastic budget reductions in Colorado history without conflict. We are known for a collaborative environment where we build sustainable change based on multiple variables over time. We take time. We breathe. We trust. We move forward together. As one of our elementary teachers stated: “Once you get trust established and work together, that trust expands like fireworks. It goes in all directions.”

Cynthia Stevenson is superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools in Golden, Colo. E-mail: cstevens@jeffco.k12.co.us

 

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