DENVER -- In what would be the nation's most far-reaching plan to make teachers accountable for their students' academic progress, members of the Denver teachers union are expected to approve a pilot program today that would link raises to their students' performance.
Other districts reward teachers for meeting goals set at the start of the school year, and some, including Columbus, Ohio, pay teachers bonuses for student achievement. But if the two-year Denver pilot plan leads to a permanent system, traditional criteria for annual raises, such as years of service and cost-of-living allowances, would be scrapped for salary increases based solely on classroom results.
"Pay-for-performance based on student outcome is totally unheard of," said Andrea Giunta, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. "No one has ever done it. But we think this is a reasonable program, so we decided, `Let's test it.' "
The proposed experiment in Denver, a city that, like others, has struggled to improve student achievement, especially among students from poor and minority families, comes as an increasing number of school systems around the country are turning to assessment tests and other standards to determine whether students will be held back a grade or sent to tutoring sessions beyond the regular school day.
The issue has gained such currency that the leading candidates in next year's presidential campaign, Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, have made higher educational standards and teacher accountability a cornerstone of their campaigns.
But nowhere else in the country has a school district moved so close as Denver to tying teacher salaries directly to results achieved in the classroom. At the end of the proposed pilot program, school officials here would evaluate the results and recommend criteria on which to base pay increases. The teachers union would then vote for what would become a permanent system.
"Merit programs in the past have not worked because they have been based on false premises and they have been evaluated in uneven ways," said Robert F. Chase, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "But proposals like the one in Denver are taking merit pay into a different direction, and we're seeing folks around the country who are willing to look at new programs and say, `Let's take a look at it and see what it means.' "
Jewell Gould, director of research for the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, said: "Denver is clearly breaking new ground with this system. It's also one of the better proposals I've seen on merit pay."
The test program is expected to be approved by Denver's 4,300 public school teachers, partly because for two years it would supplement current pay schedules for the 450 teachers who participate. Teachers in Denver's public schools now earn annual salaries from $24,000 for first-year teachers to $56,200 for a 41-year veteran. Teachers in the pilot program can make as much as $1,500 a year more.
If the plan is approved, school administrators intend to select three groups of five schools -- four elementary schools and one middle school -- to put the plan into effect. In the second year the school district plans to add a high school to each of the three groups.
Each teacher in the pilot schools would receive $500 for participating and an additional $1,000 if, by the end of the academic year, a majority of the teacher's students showed an improvement.
Each group of participating schools would be evaluated for student improvement, based on test scores or a development course taken by the teacher.