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Published in Print: November 1, 2004, as Performance Anxiety

Performance Anxiety

Denver teachers made history by agreeing to link pay to achievement. But will voters (and students) go along?

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It’s a few weeks into the fall session, and in a gritty central Denver neighborhood, math teacher Taylor Betz is trying to steer her class of 28 8th graders toward line equations. Trying and trying—many students have come to class without their homework and take turns wandering around the room, talking and poking each other with rulers. Betz repeatedly has to raise her voice above the clamor, and more than once she escorts a flagrantly misbehaving teen out to the hall for a good talking-to. “That’s bullshit,” a student tells her after she informs him he’ll have to stay after school.

About 25 miles away, in a crisp, new, climate-controlled middle school in suburban Highlands Ranch, Colorado, science teacher John McKinney is explaining evolution to a class of 27 8th graders. Gesturing toward the full-color photo enlargements and maps that fill the two walls not dominated by large whiteboards, McKinney dives into an excursus on the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Aside from a few murmurs between students about the subject at hand, the class is church-mouse quiet. The only discipline problem McKinney encounters all afternoon is a kid leaning back in his chair.

Geographic proximity aside, the two classrooms—and what it takes to teach in each one—couldn’t be further apart. And yet, despite the night-and-day contrast in the preparedness of Betz’s and McKinney’s students, if Denver voters give the nod next year, both teachers will be working under contracts that tie part of their pay to their students’ classroom performance—or lack thereof.

Teacher John McKinney
John McKinney's suburban district isn't willing to chance Denver's pay experiment.
—Michael Lewis

Merit-based salaries for teachers isn’t new, either in theory or in practice—the Douglas County School District, in which McKinney teaches, has been paying its teachers merit-based bonuses for a decade. But no school district as big as Denver’s has ever successfully adopted such a plan for teachers. Neither has a school district of any size been able to implement such a radically comprehensive merit-pay system: Except for routine cost-of-living increases, Denver teachers would receive no pay increases without a corresponding increase in their classroom performance. No step increases. No seniority increases. No kidding. All of which raises the question: Why in the world did the Denver Classroom Teachers Association not only approve but also aggressively campaign for a plan that could freeze some teachers’ paychecks? According to the union, it was better to jump on the merit-pay bandwagon than wait until it rolled over them.

ProComp, as the Professional Compensation System for Teachers is known in Denver, traces its roots to 1999’s teacher-contract negotiations, during which the school district first proposed a pay-for-performance plan. Although the idea was shelved at the time, the teachers’ union leadership concluded that they’d eventually be confronted with a merit-based pay structure. With the apparently unstoppable march of standards-based funding nationwide, union leaders decided that rather than wait for the district to impose an accountability plan, they would help them build one.

“The representative council of the union saw that this was something that wasn’t going to go away,” says Connie White, a literacy specialist at Denver’s Sabin Elementary, who opposed the plan at first but ended up voting for it. “They saw that it was going to be reintroduced and reintroduced and reintroduced because of increasing pressure from the legislature due to low and unsatisfactory scores on standards tests.”

Union leaders immediately took the offensive with members and district administrators alike. “We really stressed to teachers that the ProComp plan offered a way to control their future and get more than a cost-of-living raise every year,” says Denver middle school teacher and union official Brad Jupp. The way to do that, he and other union leaders concluded, was to work directly with school administrators—a rare move among the two-dozen-odd districts estimated by the Denver-based nonprofit Education Commission of the States to have merit-pay or pay-for-performance systems.

In the end, negotiators from the union and district agreed to form a design team—with equal numbers of administrators and educators—to develop a pay-for-performance pilot program covering 16 schools. When the pilot was deemed a success, a larger team with the same teacher-administrator ratio borrowed several ideas from the neighboring Douglas County district, which has had a merit-pay plan for 10 years. They also took a lesson from stillborn merit-pay initiatives in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, brought down by lack of funding and the animus of the local teachers’ union, respectively. ProComp cleared the latter hurdle last March, but not by much—the vote was 59 percent to 41 percent—and only after intensive school-by-school, teacher-by-teacher campaigning by union officials.

“By traditional union election standards, we didn’t see a wide margin of victory,” admits Jupp, who did much of the campaigning. “But we were voting on a very novel policy initiative with a very controversial take on pay.” “Very” is an understatement. ProComp not only departs from the tried-and-true system of seniority to decide who gets raises; it also ties teacher salaries to a variable long considered the third rail of successful merit-based pay systems: student performance.

“When it first came up, I think most teachers were automatically suspicious, and I was, too,” says Greg Ahrnsbrak, a physical education instructor at Baker Middle School in central Denver. He was concerned, as many city teachers were and still are, about his salary being weighed down by elements beyond his control—among them how well his students do on standardized tests such as the Colorado Student Assessment Program. “It’s true that CSAP scores are an element of the plan, but if it only relied on that, it would never have been approved. ... Once I looked at it and understood it, I voted for it.”

The secret of ProComp’s success when it came to the rank-and-file vote turned out to be including the CSAP but not making it the be-all and end-all of how teacher performance is assessed. Under the plan, whose day-to-day operational details are still being worked out, teachers would work with their principals once a year to set realistic goals for each class and each student, depending on his or her academic preparedness. Teachers could select from a nine-item menu to craft a blend of raises and bonuses contingent upon student growth, evaluations, professional development, and so-called market incentives for taking on more challenging jobs. Scores from CSAP, which is administered yearly to students in 3rd through 10th grades for reading and writing and to 5th through 10th graders for math, would still be part of the bargain. But the score improvements set as thresholds for teacher-performance improvement would vary from class to class and student to student.

The other can’t-miss ingredient in the plan is that only new teachers would be forced to tie their pay to performance goals—under a grandfather clause, all current teachers would be offered the option of staying with the current seniority system until they retire.

It all sounds good in theory, but what about the inner city teachers who have to slog through 10 steps of disciplinary problems for every step of academic progress they manage to make? Why would Taylor Betz sign on to the idea of tying her pay to students’ performance in such a difficult classroom, no matter how nuanced the assessment of her teaching might be? It turns out she has something to gain.

‘I’ll see you after class for that,” Betz declares, noticing a student use a four-letter word with his deskmate. “People should be allowed to come to school and not hear that kind of language.”

Denver teacher and union official Brad Jupp.
Denver teacher and union official Brad Jupp hopes the public sees merit in the proposed pay plan.
—Michael Lewis

Between sending troublemakers out of class, Betz manages with a firm hand, seeming to scan the room continually with one eye as she focuses on the day’s math lessons with the other. Each student is given ample opportunity to boost or deflate his daily grade from the default C level, and Betz is just as likely to award a bonus point for “not making a federal case” of a reprimand as she is for diligent work on the day’s assignments. Those who follow the directions clearly printed on the whiteboard are enthusiastically thanked. Those who dawdle or fail to open their notebooks quickly find their names on the board, where they’ll remain until a measure of good behavior warrants removal.

Cole Middle School, where Betz works, is not an easy place to teach. Drawing from the surrounding neighborhood of run-down, century-old residences, it’s filled with difficult-to-teach children toting a sometimes volatile mixture of emotional baggage. Many of the area’s underlying problems tend to manifest themselves as acts of misbehavior and a constant struggle to focus. “I’ve always worked in schools where most of the kids are contending with a lot of factors outside of school that show up when they’re in class,” Betz says. “I’m more interested in working in schools that don’t have high test scores.”

As a 10-year Denver Public Schools veteran with a master’s degree, Betz makes a little less than $45,400 a year. Under the current pay plan, she can expect annual raises of slightly more than $2,000 in each of the next four years. That’s a nice annual bump, and when you find out she not only voted for ProComp but also plans somewhere down the line to opt out of the grandfather clause that would protect that annual raise, you have to wonder whether the stress of teaching has affected her judgment.

Until you look closely at the numbers: After 13 years under the current system, Betz’s annual increases all but dry up, other than a modest raise every five years. Under ProComp, however, teaching in a school designated as “hard to serve,” such as Cole Middle, would get her an automatic raise. Betz also stands to gain from ProComp’s bonus system, which rewards those who teach in hard-to-staff subjects like math. Assuming she continues to teach math at a hard-to-serve school, collect her professional development credit, and meet her annual goals, Betz would be eligible for a $3,000 to $4,000 annual raise under ProComp. By the time she hits 30 years of teaching, according to the union’s ProComp calculator, she could be pulling down $100,000 a year. When you consider that she’d only be making $57,190 under the current system’s seniority-based system, tying her pay to student performance seems worth the risk.

“Teachers doing hard work in the hardest places deserve to be rewarded,” Betz says, though she’s quick to add that the money isn’t what motivates her. “I’ve chosen to do this regardless of pay,” she says. “Where that will hopefully help is reducing teacher turnover within any school with a low socioeconomic profile.”

The plan’s opponents, too, agree that money isn’t the best incentive. “I know the community feels like it wants accountability in its school systems, and that makes sense. But I’m wondering why that always translates into money,” says Barbara Bennett, a math instructor at Denver’s South High School, who voted against ProComp in part because the proposal was not detailed enough to win her over. “Money just isn’t a motivator for most teachers.”

If Denver voters follow the lead of the city’s teachers’ union and approve the $25 million proposal next fall, other districts might have to confront the growing demand for standards-based achievement. The plan “will open up opportunities for legislatures, citizens, and others around the nation to give action to what polls have said for years—that they would be willing to put more money toward teacher salaries if they can be assured of a greater return on investment,” says Charles Coble, vice president of policy studies and programs at the Education Commission of the States. The national teachers’ unions have so far been wary of the more-accountability-for-more-money bargain, fearing that when the public coffers thin out, the money half of the equation will disappear, leaving teachers with more work and less pay. And you don’t have to go farther than Douglas County to see how ProComp’s impact might just as easily stay within the city limits. Not even in the well-funded, well-connected schools of John McKinney’s district are teachers—or administrators, for that matter—willing to go out as far on the merit-pay limb as their urban neighbors. Officials in Douglas County say they’d rather see how the limb holds up under Denver’s weight before they crawl out any farther themselves.

“The ProComp designers built a student-achievement element into that plan, and so we’re interested in ... seeing how it works out,” says Doug Hartman, one of the district’s directors of human resources, who was president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers when its own pay-for-performance plan was first approved. “In terms of cutting loose the current compensation structure, we have no interest in doing that,” he adds. “We want our bonus-incentive plan to be attractive and incent teachers to perform well, but we don’t want the majority of their income growth to be put at risk.”

PHOTO: Teacher Taylor Betz tries to underscore the importance of math to 8th graders in inner city Denver. Despite the challenges, Betz plans to tie her pay in part to students' performance.
—Michael Lewis

Vol. 16, Issue 03, Pages 15-19

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