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Teaching Profession

Denver Teachers to Strike Over Merit-Pay System

By Madeline Will — February 06, 2019 8 min read
Margaret Flynn, front, a 7th grade teacher in Denver public schools, led other teachers in a march during a rally outside the state Capitol on Jan. 30.
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Denver teachers are set to strike on Monday over a dispute centered on the district’s once-revolutionary performance-pay model.

The tumultuous situation in Denver illustrates the national swing in education policy priorities. For years, efforts to link pay to teacher effectiveness were a focus for many legislators, education leaders, and advocacy groups. Now, amid the wave of teacher activism, the national conversation is focused on paying all teachers more, regardless of where they work, what they teach, or how their students perform on state tests.

“The fact that, ‘Hey, let’s pay good teachers more,’ is so rarely a prominent talking point [these days]—much less a concrete part of the agenda—is really striking,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. (Hess also authors an opinion blog at edweek.org.)

While the majority of teachers in Denver supported the school district’s performance-pay model, known as ProComp, when it was put in place 15 years ago, now most teachers in the city have voted to strike over it.

“The district’s revolving door of teacher turnover must stop,” said Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, in a statement on Wednesday announcing the strike date. The district “must improve teacher pay to keep quality, experienced teachers in Denver classrooms.”

The district, which had asked the state to intervene in the labor dispute to no avail, has pledged to keep schools open during the strike. Both sides have said they remain committed to bargaining.

The ProComp system at the heart of the strike has been heralded by experts as a groundbreaking attempt at rewarding teachers not for their number of years in the classroom, but for their work raising student achievement and for teaching where they are needed most.

“The early hopes and aspirations were that it was going to revolutionize teacher pay,” said Paul Teske, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver and one of the authors of a book on the history of ProComp. For the most part, the district, the teachers’ union, and taxpayers were all on board when the program was finalized in 2005.

The experiment was at the forefront of connecting teachers’ compensation to their performance, which has since been attempted in other districts, including Dallas and the District of Columbia, and was the focus of the former Teacher Incentive Fund program. (That federal program, which aimed to improve student outcomes by increasing educators’ effectiveness through performance pay, has now morphed into the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program.)

“I think [ProComp] has had an impact,” Teske added. “It just shows that it’s not easy to get it right, whatever right is.”

Since last spring, teachers in about a half-dozen states have walked out of their classrooms to protest low wages, most recently in Virginia last month. Since then, policymakers have mostly avoided making any recommendations that include teacher accountability, preferring across-the-board pay raises. Among the more than 15 governors who have proposed raising teacher pay so far this year, only Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has suggested a merit-based model.

Pay Confusion

ProComp was borne out of a collaboration between the Denver school district, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, and voters, who passed an annual property tax increase to fund the program. District officials have said they receive $33 million each year for ProComp.

The model rewards teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools and positions, as well as those who have demonstrated effectiveness, which is partially measured through student test scores. Teachers who serve in a school that meets district performance goals in student growth are eligible for a bonus, and teachers can receive an annual pay raise for achieving positive scores on evaluations. In all, there are about 10 different incentives or bonuses that teachers can qualify for.

Teachers have long said the system is confusing and makes it hard to predict what their annual salary will be. Both the district and the teachers’ union agree that ProComp needs to be simplified—they just differ on the details.

The union favors larger base salaries for teachers across-the-board, coupled with smaller and fewer incentives. The district has pushed for bigger incentives for teachers working in the city’s poorest schools.

See Also: Teacher Pay: How Salaries, Pensions, and Benefits Work in Schools

Roman, the teachers’ union president, said in an interview that it’s easy to look at the proposals and think, “Why don’t you want those incentives to help teachers in those schools?”

“It’s more than that, once you get into the details,” he said. The incentives and bonuses, Roman said, can mask the reality that teachers’ base salaries are not keeping up with those of the surrounding areas.

Still, Superintendent Susana Cordova said keeping good teachers in the neediest schools, which ProComp attempts to do through financial incentives, is key to closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their more-affluent peers: “We don’t have an issue with attracting teachers to go into low-poverty schools,” she said.

A Changing Landscape

Denver, like all of Colorado, has seen high numbers of teachers leaving the classroom over the last decade, said Allison Atteberry, an assistant professor of research and evaluation methods at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

However, in the ProComp era, there’s some evidence that more effective teachers stay longer, said Atteberry, who has studied the system.

There is also some evidence that ProComp attracts slightly more effective teachers to Denver. Student outcomes have increased under ProComp, although Atteberry noted that it is difficult to disentangle the effect of the pay structure from other district policies. Still, these gains in student achievement did not occur in similar Colorado districts.

“It’s remarkable that something that seemed centrist and collaborative 15 years ago is now being revisited as something controversial,” said Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute. “It says a lot about where the center of gravity is being moved,” in terms of reforms.

Indeed, between then and now, a lot has changed in Denver and in the education policy landscape more broadly. When ProComp was passed, there was a growing push across the country for teacher accountability tied to student test scores.

With ProComp, “we want to know how teachers are doing and reward them,” Teske said. “I think the teacher-evaluation focus [across the country] was, and became perceived as, much more negative—let’s find the bad teachers and fire them. When that got overlaid with ProComp, it was confusing.”

Over time, national attitudes have started to shift. States are beginning to back away from tying teacher evaluations to students’ standardized test scores, including most recently in New York state. There’s been a backlash against the focus on student testing. And “public opinion has become more sympathetic to teachers in the last few years, which has emboldened unions to revisit some of the compromises they made,” Hess said.

The district has had trouble with communication, too, said William Slotnik, the founder and executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center, which helped develop, implement, and assess ProComp. Surveys showed that many teachers didn’t understand all the available incentives.

Meanwhile, in Denver, housing prices have skyrocketed in the last few years, placing a greater burden on teachers. And the average teacher salary in the state—$51,808, according to the National Education Association—is about $8,000 less than the national average.

Because of these constraints, teachers are understandably focused on the financial issues, Slotnik said. But ProComp was meant to be a broader, systemic reform that supported teachers’ growth as professionals, he noted.

“If we want to take performance-based compensation seriously, we have to recognize that it’s not just about money, it’s also about support to educators, and that’s where the broader focus needs to be,” he said. “If people move away from performance-based compensation done well, they’re going to be making a mistake.”

A ‘Terrible’ Signal to Districts

Denver can’t back away entirely from ProComp—voters passed a ballot measure that clearly delineates what the tax increase revenue will fund. Cordova said the district is committed to maintaining the pay system’s “cutting-edge” aspects, such as supporting teachers through individual bonuses as they become more expert at teaching.

Even so, some analysts have expressed disappointment that the once-groundbreaking pay structure could now shift to look like a traditional salary schedule.

The negotiations now “look more like a typical fight between a union and a district, which is disappointing in the 15-year picture,” Teske said.

Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for strong teacher accountability, said she has long had qualms about ProComp, arguing that it didn’t go far enough to restructure teacher compensation.

Still, the current negotiations and the upcoming strike send “a terrible signal to other districts which are considering a different kind of [pay] model that this isn’t going to work,” she said. “If they want to get along with their unions, it’s not going to be worth it.”

Denver will be the second big-city school district to see labor unrest this year. Teachers in Los Angeles wrapped up a six-day strike late last month, claiming victories that included lower class sizes, more support staff, and a 6 percent pay raise.

An alternative version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Denver Teachers to Strike Over Pay Plan


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