Teaching Profession

Denver Voters Pave Way for Incentive Pay

By Bess Keller — November 08, 2005 4 min read
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Starting this week, Denver teachers will be able to sign up for a groundbreaking new pay plan that city voters endorsed Nov. 1 by accepting $25 million in new property taxes.

The vote capped a nationally watched drive for the change, which stops rewarding teachers for years in the classroom and, instead, pays them for raising student achievement, adding to their skills, and teaching in the schools and fields where they are needed most.

Many education advocates hailed the salary framework, six years in the making, as an important step forward in modernizing the way teachers are paid.

Voters agreed to raise property taxes by what amounts initially to $24 per year on every $100,000 of a home’s assessed value to finance the salary plan. It is expected by supporters to hike the district’s average salary substantially and help produce student learning gains.

Teachers currently in classrooms have a little more than six years to opt in to the program, although starting Jan. 1, teachers new to the system will be automatically enrolled.

The measure, Ballot Question 3A, won a clear victory, with support from 58.4 percent of voters. It had been backed by Denver’s popular mayor, John W. Hickenlooper, the City Council, and other business and civic leaders, as well as a campaign war chest of more than $1 million, mostly from foundations and businesses.

“I’m really pleased by the margin,” said Brad Jupp, the former union activist who led the joint district-union team that devised the pay plan. “What [the plan] had that made it last with the public for six years is a really good idea at its core … the idea that you pay teachers more for getting results with their kids.”

Opposition to the plan, known as the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, came mainly from a small group of teachers. They charged that the complex system was unfair to teachers who would have fewer opportunities to earn more money because of their assignments and for encouraging teachers to teach to tests. Opponents also argued that the district’s administration had not shown itself capable of running such a system. (“Fate of Denver’s Pay Plan Rests With Voters,” Oct. 26, 2005.)

Complex System

Kim Ursetta, the president of the 3,200-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate, acknowledged concerns among teachers about implementation. But, she said, the union and the district had been working hard on both a system to serve teachers as they contemplate a switch and ways to ensure quality as the plan picks up steam.

Union members approved the new system by 59 percent to 41 percent in a March 2004 vote.

Mark Barlock, a 9th grade English teacher with five years of experience in the Denver schools and an active opponent of ProComp, said he could nonetheless envision joining the new program several years hence when it would be most to his financial advantage.

“I may opt into ProComp in the very last window, if that’s the game and I’ve decided to stay [in the Denver schools],” he said.

In recent years, the idea of overhauling the way teachers are paid to match compensation systems in other sectors has gained broad support among reformers and lawmakers.

But winning teachers over, and surmounting a host of practical problems, have proved difficult. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have been against many forms of “merit” or “performance” pay for individual educators, especially when they would link the test scores of a class to a teacher’s salary. As a result, changes in salary structures have mostly been piecemeal.

To date, no school district as large as Denver, which enrolls more than 70,000 students, has thoroughly revamped its compensation plan to reflect factors other than years of experience and college credits. Denver’s framework is also unusual for giving teachers substantial opportunities to add salary based directly on student-achievement results.

Proponents of paying teachers on a different basis hailed the victory as significant, and some said it promises more such changes nationwide.

‘A Breakthrough’

“By approving ProComp, a solid majority of Denver voters have ushered in a new chapter in the history of the teacher profession,” Josh Greenman, a spokesman for the Teaching Commission, a New York City-based bipartisan advocacy group, declared in a statement. “It’s a breakthrough that can, should, and will spread across the country.”

Allan Odden, a professor of educational administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has helped states and districts craft changes to the way teachers might be paid, agreed that adoption of the plan had historic overtones. He said its success so far shows that voters are willing to back higher pay for teachers if it promises to raise student achievement.

But in the long run, he argued, “we will have to see how it’s implemented and whether it will boost student learning.”

The Denver plan aims to raise teachers’ salaries as much as 40 percent over a 25-year career, but on the condition that their work will contribute directly to academic gains for students. One facet, already in effect, requires teachers to set measurable objectives for their classrooms and rewards them with raises or bonuses if they meet those objectives.

Other incentives dole out salary increases or bonuses for completing degrees, undertaking professional development, raising scores on state tests, or teaching in high-poverty schools or in high-need academic areas such as English as a second language.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Denver Voters Pave Way for Incentive Pay

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