Denver Teachers, City Leaders Support Pay-for-Performance Ballot Measure
Denver, Colorado could become the nation's first urban school district to implement a pay-for-performance plan, if voters approve a November 1 ballot measure that already has the support of local teachers and city officials.
Since 1999, Denver Public Schools (DPS) and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local bargaining union, have collaborated to develop the Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp) and run a limited pilot program. In 2002, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers overwhelmingly rejected a similar plan in Ohio.
ProComp will phase out the traditional "steps-and-lanes" salary schedule, which compensates classroom instructors and professional specialists based on years of experience and earned graduate school credits, replacing it with a new system of pay incentives based on four major components: knowledge and skills; market incentives; professional evaluations; and student growth.
A ballot measure to fund ProComp's new bonuses and salary increases will determine whether it becomes permanent and is implemented district-wide. If so, the plan will cost taxpayers $25 million the first year, with the annual price tag rising at the rate of inflation thereafter. If voters approve the ProComp funding, veteran teachers will have several opportunities to opt in over the next few years, starting in 2006. None will earn less than their current salaries, while all will have a chance to earn more.
"I believe [ProComp] is worth it," DPS Board President Les Woodward said. "This is real money for real improvement."
The limited scope and small number of schools in the pilot program, as well as the limited availability of earlier testing data, make any broad appraisal of ProComp's success so far in raising achievement incomplete. But there is plenty of room for improvement in the city's system. On the last round of state tests, 25 percent of DPS 3rd- through 10th-graders rated "unsatisfactory," and more than 30 percent rated only "partially proficient," in reading. Nearly 75 percent of the district's 5th- through 10th-graders failed to achieve proficiency in math.
In March 2004, 59 percent of DCTA members followed the DPS Board of Education's lead and ratified a 10-year ProComp agreement. In so doing, DCTA bucked its parent affiliate, the National Education Association, still an ardent defender of the traditional salary schedule.
Numerous private foundations contributed to the research, development, and outreach that won support for alternative compensation from Denver's teachers. Another instrumental figure in the cause was Brad Jupp, a teacher and leader of the Pay for Performance Design Team who recently joined new DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet's cabinet as a senior academic policy advisor.
"ProComp takes the district's single largest expenditure, teacher salary, and aligns it more closely with our intended outcome as a district, improving the learning of our students," Jupp said.
The plan's most promising and innovative aspect, supporters say, is the permanent salary increase offered for setting and meeting two measurable "student growth objectives" a year, such as 85 percent of students in a class gaining a year of proficiency on a measurable assessment. A four-year study of the DPS pilot program by the Community Training Assistance Center found teachers who set higher-quality objectives showed better results in raising student performance.
"If you know where you're going, you've got a better chance of getting there," Woodward explained.
The plan also rewards teachers with a salary increase for exceeding expectations on their students' Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP) scores. If the teacher fails to meet CSAP expectations in a subsequent year, the extra pay is lost.
Though American Enterprise Institute President Frederick Hess said he is excited by the precedent of a major district preparing to establish a plan that would "link pay to various metrics of teacher performance," he also sees weaknesses in it.
"It's a promising first step," Hess said. "But it's only a baby step and a very gentle, very milquetoast approach to reform."
An optional plan that gives less-capable instructors less incentive to join and holds participating teachers blameless for poor performance is "not a promising approach," Hess said. ProComp raises teachers' salaries for satisfactory evaluations, but tenure laws still prevent district leaders from removing ineffective teachers quickly and inexpensively.
Also, Hess said, the weight given to certain incentives within ProComp weakens its potential effectiveness--particularly the idea of giving the largest salary increase to teachers who get certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. At best, certification has a "very mild" positive or even mixed effect on student learning, he said. Paying certified teachers more allows them to receive substantial pay raises without positively affecting academic achievement.
Hess also said the market incentive component of ProComp, which grants $1,000 annual bonuses to teachers working in "hard-to-serve" schools or filling "hard-to-staff" specialties, is a step in the right direction but does not offer enough money "to have much impact."
Woodward acknowledged many qualified teachers will not accept assignments to challenging or understaffed schools, even for a bonus. "But because we have introduced the incentive they will recognize that the district values the challenging assignment," he said.
Jupp also recognized ProComp's weaknesses, but highlighted the collaborative achievement as an adaptable, "well-crafted compromise."
"We know that it will not provide an educational silver bullet," Jupp said. "We must do more than change the way teachers are paid if we are to improve the learning of all of the students in our schools. But we are committed to improving the system based on careful evaluation in the upcoming years."
Forging a Path
Hess said implementing ProComp in Denver is likely to inspire other urban school districts and bargaining unions to collaborate on teacher compensation reform.
"The question is whether the union leadership will see this as a way to bolster the public view of teachers, get additional compensation for teachers, and really make life better for their membership," Hess said. "In some states and cities, union leadership is going to make that calculation."
Speaking from experience, Woodward warned other districts that undertaking such reform is not easy work. "You can't be pollyannish. It takes time, and it takes guts," he said. "You can't just impose our system somewhere else."
ProComp also has earned the support of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and other city officials. At press time, no organized opposition had arisen to protest the November 1 ballot proposal.
Ben DeGrow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.
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