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Daniels-backed Harrison program one to watch

Posted by Sep 29th, 2010.

It was with great interest that I read in the Colorado Springs Gazette this morning about Harrison School District receiving a $1.1 million Daniels Fund grant to support its groundbreaking Effectiveness and Results Teacher Pay-for-Performance Plan. Other school leaders in Colorado and around the nation figure to have a lot to learn from the highly innovative program led by Superintendent Mike Miles, a program bolstered in recent months by the passage of SB 191.

What makes today’s story more interesting is the confluence of recent news coverage. First, last week’s big-splash Denver Post story on Vanderbilt’s Nashville merit pay study was eye-opening and potentially instructive, even if another less-touted rigorous research project studying a similar program in Little Rock showed different results. Like most research in the education field, the Vanderbilt findings weren’t as broadly definitive as some would like them to be. They do give good clues about the limits of merit pay in affecting the behavior of many current educators, but tell us little or nothing about the larger potential for transforming the teaching workforce.

The next day, two of Colorado’s largest school districts — Jefferson County and Colorado Springs 11 — celebrated the announcement of multi-million dollar federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants that will enable them to pilot performance-based compensation programs in some of their high-need schools. These programs of course figure to be significantly different than the Nashville (or Little Rock) program so heavily scrutinized in recent media coverage.

But even bolder yet is the long-term strategic effort to remake the teacher evaluation process and compensation system in Harrison. (To get a glimpse of the vision and some nuts & bolts, you can listen to a podcast interview I recorded with Mike Miles earlier this year.) While several Colorado charter schools are innovating in the area of compensation, nothing as dramatic and to the scale of what Harrison is doing is being attempted anywhere else in the nation, at least as far as I know.

Another major news story in the past week — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million reform gift to Newark, N.J., schools (which represents about 10 percent of the district’s annual budget; by comparison, Daniels’ gift represents about 1 percent of Harrison’s annual budget) — got the big splash on Oprah and a wide variety of media outlets nationwide. With the political spine of Governor Chris Christie and the courage and innovation of Mayor Cory Booker, there is tremendous opportunity to hope for great things to come out of Newark.

Not to belittle what’s taking place on the East Coast, but right here in Colorado — with the support of Daniels, not Zuckerberg — we have the opportunity to watch a smaller but potentially monumental laboratory of education transformation. I wish Harrison well, and am keenly interested to learn and observe the positive results in years to come.

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One Response to “Daniels-backed Harrison program one to watch”

  1. Peter Huidekoper says:

    Ben- I appreciate the goals Mike Miles has to improve Harrison schools. But as I wrote in my recent newsletter, am skeptical of the way I understand he has principals in the classroom as evaluators. I wrote:

    Principals as chief evaluator? I hope not. Allow flexibility on who does the evaluation.

    Why? You have taught? You have been evaluated? You know why I worry.

    I have taught under 13 principals. In Another View #62 I wrote that principals’ observations—though usually kind and positive—have meant little to me (“So ‘teacher evaluation’ is broken—but is it worth fixing?” Dec. 2009). The truly meaningful comments have come from the dean, the department head, or fellow teachers following their visits to my class. Those colleagues at two boarding schools, as I wrote, were my evaluators; not once did the school head stop by to critique my instruction. (I am glad SB 191 says evaluations “may include student input.” I have shared with administrators end-of-course student evaluations of me; they can be hurtful, but they trigger good conversations about areas to work on.)

    Since objecting to this new trend last December, especially the notion of helicopter-principals zooming in 16 times a year to observe a new teacher (Harrison School District), I returned to a public school classroom last winter and spring. Visits from administrators confirmed my chief objection to prescribing who does these evaluations: many school leaders do not know how to make such observations useful, and yet—please note this—this “weakness” may in fact have little to do with how effective they are at their job.

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