Education

Denver Teachers Approve Pay-for-Performance Plan

By Bess Keller — March 23, 2004 5 min read
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Denver teachers have voted to embrace a new pay plan that would stop rewarding them for years on the job and start recognizing specific skills and achievements in the classroom.

Approval from the teachers’ union puts the closely watched plan into the hands of Denver voters, who will be asked in 2005 for a property-tax increase to pay for the $25 million annual cost.

Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association supported the proposal, written as part of the teachers’ contract, by a decisive 59 percent to 41 percent. About 2,700 of the union’s 3,200 members cast ballots. The 70,000-student district has about 4,500 teachers.

District administrators and local union leaders, who had hurried from school to school over the past few weeks explaining what they saw as the benefits of the system, said they were surprised but gratified by the margin of victory. The votes were tallied March 19.

“We thought it would be very close,” said Superintendent Jerry Wartgow. “We’re starting with a good, strong base” to make the case for the change to voters.

In Denver and across the nation, teachers typically are paid on the basis of years of service and the extent of their graduate education courses. But while many observers say that system should go, it has not been easy to challenge. In 2002, for instance, Cincinnati teachers resoundingly rejected a pay-for-performance plan that, like Denver’s, had been in the making for several years. The Cincinnati plan had even steered clear of the most controversial area of merit pay: rewards linked to student test scores.

“Performance pay has been pushed on the policy front,” said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group in Washington. “But down in the trenches, I think teachers have maintained a great skepticism about whether it would be fairly applied.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union and the parent of the Denver association, officially opposes departures from the traditional pay scale.

Ms. Walsh and others say that if the plan goes into effect, Denver’s experience will shed important light on whether the way teachers are paid makes a difference.

‘A Boon’

The Denver framework provides teachers with several ways to earn raises—in most cases, a small percentage of starting yearly pay for a credentialed teacher—including student academic growth as measured by test scores. Teachers may also get hikes by being evaluated as satisfactory or by adding to their education or training, as long as they show the benefit to their classrooms. In addition, teachers working in high-poverty schools or in subjects with personnel shortages would be paid more.

A newly hired Denver teacher with a bachelor’s degree and full certification currently makes $32,971.

Details of the plan are still to be worked out, but it would be phased in over two school years, starting in 2005-06.

Teachers now on the payroll could stick with the current system throughout their Denver careers or opt into the new one any time over the first seven years, but no later. New teachers would automatically be enrolled in the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, as it is known.

Although pay hikes would vary from teacher to teacher, the $25 million in additional tax money would represent a 12 percent hike overall. District and union officials have said over and over that an increase of that magnitude is politically feasible only if teachers are paid along different lines.

“I think for all the young people going into education, this will be a boon,” said Robert A. Tomsich, a 4th grade teacher with 40 years’ experience who voted to go forward with the plan. Under the traditional system, he said, teachers had to take on extra duties, such as coaching, to make more money.

“You never got anywhere [in salary] for being excellent in your job,” he said.

Mr. Tomsich, who for a dozen years before his current assignment at Crofton Elementary School worked at a high-poverty, low-performing school in the district, argued that more money for teachers in such schools was justified. “They do work differently and harder,” he said.

Brad Jupp, a union activist who has helped lead the pay initiative since its start more than five years ago, said he believed that teachers voted for the plan because they could make more money under it, and because they thought it would work fairly to connect pay with their accomplishments in the classroom.

The union and the district jointly ran a four-year pilot progam that required teachers to set achievement goals for their students and then paid teachers more if students reached those goals. But the plan proved complicated to implement and unpopular with teachers.

So, starting more than two years ago, the two sides, with continuing support from foundations, began designing a more comprehensive salary schedule. It incorporates the goal-setting while giving teachers more avenues for earning pay raises. Evaluation of the pilot showed that setting substantial and specific goals—more than reaching them—tended to raise student achievement.

Union leaders attributed many of the “no” votes to distrust of the district and worries about parts of the plan that must still be fleshed out.

Mr. Jupp added that teachers were now looking to Denver residents, 70 percent of whom don’t have children in the public schools, for support at the polls. “This was very much a proposal that was based on having high expectations and hopes for the district and an expectation that the public would come along and match those high hopes,” he said.

District and union leaders express confidence that voters will support the measure, which would increase taxes on a home worth $251,000, the Denver average, by around $50 a year. Voters backed a new levy for schools last fall, and the proposed hike would be earmarked exclusively for the ProComp system and safeguarded in a special trust fund administered along the lines of a retirement trust fund.

Two weeks ago, at the beginning of the two-week voting period for teachers, Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver endorsed the plan and pledged to urge voters to agree to the $25 million annual tax increase.

Despite their optimism, the union and district officials say they have a lot of work to do over the next 1½ years fleshing out fine points of the plan, such as how teacher evaluations would be conducted, and mounting a campaign in its favor.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Wartgow says that national interest in the Denver experiment has swelled since the vote. “I’m getting phone calls and e-mails from all over the country,” he noted. “We’re very pleased and proud of the teachers who stepped forward into a new arena.”


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