Vail Valley schools pave way for grading teachers |

Vail Valley schools pave way for grading teachers

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – One thing drives Tanya Caruso to work hard in her Vail Valley classroom: She cares about her students.

But under the Eagle County School District’s performance pay system, the Avon Elementary teacher has other motivations as well.

The Eagle County School District uses students’ standardized test scores and teacher evaluations to grade teachers, offering raises each year for high-performing teachers.

Caruso, who also serves as president of the local teachers union, the Eagle County Education Association, said she likes that the system rewards successful teachers.

“If you’re a better teacher you make more money every year than somebody who’s not as good of a teacher,” she said.

However, Caruso said some teachers feel the bonuses are not big enough to serve as their main motivation. She also questions whether the district will have enough money to continue the raises if looming state budget cuts come through.

The school district’s performance pay program has been getting a lot of attention lately. A group of national experts are scheduled to visit the school district this spring to study its performance pay structure.

“These national experts come in and study what we’ve done so far and how it could change and be better,” said Jason Glass, the school district’s director of human resources.

In October, the district will host a national conference in the Vail Valley where representatives from school districts across the country will learn how to implement performance pay programs in their schools, Glass said.

All this focus on the pay system stems from a $300,000 grant the Eagle County School District recently received from the state department of education.

Eight school districts across the state received Alternative Compensation for Teacher grants that allows a district to explore and plan different means to compensate educators, a spokesman from the state department of education said in an e-mail.

A ‘leader’ in performance pay

Eagle County School District is among a minority of school districts nationwide that have tossed out the traditional pay system for teachers. Typically, a teacher’s years of experience and number of higher education credits dictates his or her pay.

Eagle County School District parted with that system eight years ago, replacing it with a performance pay model.

While about 20 percent of public school students in the U.S. are taught by teachers who get some form of performance pay, “It’s uncommon” for districts to completely abandon the old-fashioned pay system, said Jim Guthrie, a senior fellow with the George W. Bush Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Dallas, Texas.

“Up until three years ago, they [performance pay systems] just didn’t exist,” he said. “This is a very new thing. Eagle County was one of the leaders.”

Experiments done overseas tie performance pay to higher levels of student achievement, Guthrie said. However, studies in America are not yet complete, he said.

The idea of performance pay has met with resistance from teachers unions, Guthrie said. Unions argue the measures used to grade teachers are imperfect, and the emphasis on standardized testing scores encourages “teaching to the test,” Guthrie said.

Growing trend

There are signs more districts will begin dabbling in performance pay. The Obama administration recently made $600 million in grant money available for performance pay in districts nationwide, Guthrie said.

“More districts will be trying it because the financial incentives are huge,” he said.

As for the Eagle County school district, impending state funding cuts could threaten the performance pay program.

“The decrease in state funding the distinct expects puts the ability to increase any compensation in question,” Glass said. “When you’re losing money, how do you increase salaries? That’s the difficult predicament we’re in right now.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

Support Local Journalism