We’re All In This Together – Getting Rid of “Us vs. Them”

Ed. Note: This post is guest authored by Cynthia Stevenson, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, Colo., and Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.

“Once you get trust established and work together, that trust expands like fireworks. It goes in all directions.”

That’s compelling. We heard it from an elementary teacher in our district, Jefferson County, Colo.—the state’s largest school district with almost 86,000 students and 12,000 employees. The teacher is part of our strategic compensation pilot, a national research project funded by a Teacher Incentive Fund grant from the U.S. Department of Education testing new ways to support and pay teachers.

A hallmark of the pilot is teamwork. All educators in the 20 pilot schools—principals, teacher leaders, classroom and specials teachers, librarians, psychologists, and social workers—collaborate daily to improve instruction and student achievement.

They’re building trust and learning from each other.

And so is the school district and teachers’ association. It’s not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done.

Six years ago we began a unique partnership. We knew major changes were coming to public education in Colorado and across the nation. And we wanted Jeffco educators to be in the driver’s seat, shaping those changes to our profession.

So the district and our teachers’ and administrators’ association leaders worked with principals, teachers, parents and community members to study alternative pay plans across the U.S. and in other countries—and to secure millions in grants to fund this work.

Initially, both the district and teachers’ association were skeptical about pay for performance. But we took a risk and focused on creating opportunities for collaboration. The result? Our pilot project reflects clear Colorado priorities for improving student achievement, and supporting teachers and principals.

Collaborating on this project built trust and fostered the approach that “we’re all in this together.” This trust proved critical as we faced the largest state funding cuts in our history. “Us vs. them” would not have worked as we problem solved together how to cut our budget while preserving a high-quality education.

We started operating differently. And we got a lot of questions from superintendents and union leaders across the nation. Mostly they asked, “How did you do it?”

Here’s our advice:

    • Let common values ground your work. We recognized that we all care about kids, and we care about teachers. By getting to know each other, we realized the district and the teachers’ association really wanted the same things. Our differences centered on how to reach these shared goals.
    • Make time to get to know each other as individuals. We had our moments where we really disagreed with each other. But it’s hard to vilify people when you know them as individuals.
    • Create a structure for ongoing conversations. It took time—lots of honest conversations for us to share our values and perspectives.
    • Model collaboration. As challenges came up, we revised our steps to reach shared goals. In schools, teachers heard the same messages from their principal and their association representative. They modeled the collaboration they saw from us, changing the culture to one of teamwork.

By building trust and collaboration among teachers and administrators, Jeffco’s strategic compensation pilot has developed a number of practices that have promise districtwide:

  • A unique peer evaluation process. Peers evaluators are not only part of the observation process, but also are equal partners with administrators in the final evaluation of each teacher. The practice shows great promise for increasing teacher effectiveness and is now being pilot tested in other schools across our district.
  • New online data reports to enhance teacher effectiveness. The pilot developed an evaluation reporting system that allows observers to enter formal and informal observation data online, and teachers can access and use it when they need it. In addition, an online teacher support log documents what kind of support each teacher gets—to help determine what supports make the most difference in teacher effectiveness.
  • Individualized professional development. Teachers in the pilot have a professional practice conference at the start of the school year with their support team of administrators and teacher leaders. Together, they set specific, personal goals to improve their effectiveness and increase student achievement. Based on these goals, teachers receive individualized support and professional development.
  • Specific evaluation rubrics. Based on first-year observations, the pilot developed “look fors” for Jeffco’s evaluation rubrics, giving teachers districtwide a clearer picture of what skills and behaviors are expected.
  • Better ways to set student achievement growth goals. Working with the Department of Assessment and Research, schools have increased their ability to analyze data and set annual goals based on their highest needs for improving student achievement.
  • Compensation. The pilot offers a higher starting salary and opportunities to earn more money sooner in a teacher’s career. The district and association are also studying potential alternative compensation models that attract and retain high-quality teachers by raising beginning teacher salaries, compensating teachers who take leadership roles and providing incentives for participation in district-created professional development.

We’re fortunate. Educators in Jeffco are innovative. They’re willing to share their expertise and take risks. That’s what sparked our initial partnership six years ago. And it has expanded like fireworks. Now, we’re all in this together.

Cynthia M. Stevenson is superintendent of Jefferson County Schools. Kerrie Dallman is president of the Colorado Education Association and former president of the Jefferson County Education Association. They are recognized in Education Week’s 2013 “Leaders to Learn From.”


  1. I have always been skeptical about pay for performance for teachers. Student performance has so many factors, including many that teachers can not control. Family dynamics, economic wellbeing and societal pressures can all impact a student’s ability and drive to succeed in school. However, the Jeffco system that includes peer evaluations, higher early compensation for teachers, and individualized professional development seems to address issues that in other programs would leave heard-working teachers unrecognized. Evaluation rubrics still worry me as every classroom is different. All in all, if the teachers are happy with the results, the Jeffco system seems like it could and should expand. If teachers in Jeffco feel taken advantage of and not equal in this collaboration, Jeffco will lose good teachers, or good teachers will lose motivation to continue to be good teachers. Ensuring teachers feel valued in schools, districts, and the community is crucial to continue a system of good education.

  2. I was very disappointed in this article because it was a gross exaggeration if not an outright attempt to deceive. Strategic Compensation has been a very punitive and anxiety producing system for teachers in Jefferson County. Teachers do not get to collaborate but are dictated to by administrators who may be strangers and who have control over the future of the teacher if suggestions are not mandated. Our very best teachers are upset also and have been judged lacking. Like our principal says, “Let’s face it, if a principal wants to get rid of you, it’s pretty easy.” The observer writes up negative things and very little positive without knowing the background of your students or the situation they may see during a snapshot of your practice as a teacher. Every teacher I know has been hurt, humiliated and unjustly categorized as “ineffective” in some area of her practice. The stress it causes everyone is overwhelming and of course, it carries down to the students. A teacher who is stressed about student performance is going to put that stress on students whether he/she is aware of it or not. Petty things are used to judge your performance as a teacher and validation is subjective on the part of the observer. I could go on and on and give specific examples but this is probably not the time or the place. I wanted to let you know what it is really like for teachers and students instead of the sugar-coated version you wrote. It really is still “us vs. them”.

  3. The core Instructional Leadership Team’s (comprised of principal, assistant principal, two master teachers and instructional coach) success is tied to the success of the teams in the building. Strategic compensation schools are responsible for meeting a district, school, and team goal. Starting next year, part of the teacher’s final evaluation hinges on an individual goal being met as well. The instructional leadership team accomplishes its goal if the district and school are met, as well as 75% of the teams meeting their goals. In design schools, the Instructional Leadership Teams are paid for meeting their goals as well.

  4. Great article and great work is being accomplished in Jeffco! Many still believe collaboration is a sign of weakness when in fact, the work done to create collaborative working environments is far more difficult to achieve than the other positional, adversarial model. Kudos to all in Jeffco who have worked so hard to accomplish and maintain this great work!

  5. Hello,
    Are the principals and superintendents stakeholders in the student achievement also? Not just in theory, but in review and salary, like the teachers?

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