What the Rest of the Country Can Learn From Denver’s Performance-Pay Plan
Never before has the opportunity been greater to change the way teachers are paid, to transform systems that reward them for longevity and levels of education—or put a meager 1 percent or 2 percent of overall salary into bonus schemes—and create pay plans that substantially acknowledge performance. Because of programs such as the federal government’s Teacher Incentive Fund, numerous efforts to change teacher compensation are under way in jurisdictions across America. And political leaders such as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois have joined with think tanks, education reformers, and rogue elements within the education establishment in calling for better teacher wages that are in fact tied to results.
Yet, a single bold effort in Denver may have permanently transformed the debate about teacher-compensation reform. Called ProComp, the city’s performance-pay plan completely replaces the single salary schedule, uses the state assessment as one tool to reward teachers’ performance, and has captured national and even international attention.
While it is still too early to assess ProComp’s impact on student achievement and the recruitment and retention of talented teachers, early signs are promising. Denver citizens, for instance, endorsed ProComp, voting to raise their taxes $25 million a year to pay for it. As a result, teachers producing results are making more money than they would under the single salary schedule. Further, applications to teach in Denver’s hard-to-staff schools are up substantially, and well over 40 percent of the workforce is already enrolled in ProComp, a remarkable figure given that teachers employed before its implementation on Jan. 1, 2006, have the option to stay in the old system.
How did Denver accomplish such a remarkable transformation when similar efforts have failed or may not even have been attempted elsewhere?
ProComp would have been just another failed effort to change the way teachers are paid, had not an affiliate of the National Education Association, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, been involved in its development every step of the way. After a long period of research and development, and then a yearlong period of study, debate, and design—processes that were led by a union appointee—a joint task force of teachers, administrators, and community members agreed to put before the union membership and the board of education the system that would ultimately become ProComp. The pay plan thus was not something being shoved down the union’s throat by management or the board of education.
The collaboration between district and union was never easy, as it will not be in other jurisdictions. In fact, during ProComp’s development, these parties never got along particularly well. At one point, the union sued the district, and even contemplated a strike. The two parties continued to bicker about the kinds of issues that labor and management argue about everywhere. But ProComp could survive the turmoil in large part because it was developed in collaboration with teachers.
A second reason for success is that during the period of study and debate, the task force reached key compromises that made the pay reform more acceptable to teachers. For instance, ProComp would be optional for those employed before its implementation, a decision that rendered moot the argument that currently employed teachers would be harmed by the new system. In fact, all teachers employed before the implementation date would have up to seven years to opt in to ProComp, enabling the most cautious among them to sit back and watch how it is working before making a final decision.
Still, the task force built into the system an incentive for teachers to accept performance pay, by requiring the public to approve a $25 million new source of revenue before the plan could be implemented. With new money on the table came a key compromise: Teachers could trade increased accountability for higher wages. And the accountability comes in a system that pays teachers for producing results, including outcomes measured by Colorado’s state assessment. In fact, raises earned by teachers for producing exceptional results can actually be lost if their students later underperform. ProComp also rewards teachers for choosing to work in hard-to-staff schools and positions, earning satisfactory evaluations, and acquiring and demonstrating relevant knowledge and skills. These compromises led to a system that Denver teachers voted 59 percent to 41 percent to approve.
A third key lesson is that the union and school district’s success may not have been possible without prodding and support from communities external to the district. In ProComp’s early stages of development, for instance, the Rose Community Foundation, a Denver-based philanthropy, provided some prodding. When the city’s board of education insisted on a relatively brief period of time for the research-and-development phase that many deemed insufficient, the foundation offered a $1 million grant that persuaded the board to extend the time frame. As a result, the parties could explore the merits of performance pay thoroughly and design a system that would in fact work. Later, when polling data suggested that fewer than 20 percent of teachers would vote to adopt the new system, the Rose Foundation and the Broad Foundation paid for an intensive organizing effort that helped secure a favorable vote. Foundations and political leaders from within and outside Denver also pushed the union, the board of education, and the superintendent to resolve labor disputes that put ProComp at risk, especially as the public’s vote to support the new system neared.
A final lesson is that ProComp’s success required support from Colorado’s and Denver’s political establishments and the leadership of both Republicans and Democrats.
When ProComp was vulnerable and still under development, Bill Owens, the conservative Republican who was Colorado’s governor at the time, held a press conference to urge on the board of education and the union, and to acknowledge the DCTA’s courage in going where few local unions at the time were willing to follow. Bruce Benson, the state’s Republican kingmaker and himself a former gubernatorial candidate, supported with his own money the effort to raise Denver taxes and co-chaired the campaign committee. These Republicans were joined by John Hickenlooper, Denver’s Democratic mayor, who encouraged the union to endorse ProComp by promising to campaign for a tax increase, and by a host of Democratic political consultants, who oversaw the campaign for the ProComp tax increase. The effort demonstrated that Republicans and Democrats can work together—and with teachers’ unions—to advance performance pay. Political leadership was critical to the effort.
It would be a terrible mistake for communities simply to import ProComp. They would be wise, however, to study the factors that made it an enterprise viable to the union and, ultimately, to the voting public. In the design of ProComp, teachers and administrators revealed their genius, which was allowed to unfold in a one-of-a-kind collaboration between labor and management. No doubt similar genius exists in communities across the country. And future efforts in those communities will no doubt take compensation reform to levels that only a few years ago were unimaginable. Denver’s initial success provides a great deal of hope.