Teaching Profession

Model Plan of Merit Pay in Ferment

By Vaishali Honawar — July 28, 2008 8 min read
Superintendent Michael Bennet, center, Rudy Andras, left, an A-Plus Denver member, and Alan Gottlieb, a business coalition member, stay after a June ProComp meeting.
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Denver’s performance-pay system for teachers has long been hailed as a model, in good part because it was jointly conceived and implemented by the school district and the local teachers’ union. But that collaborative spirit is now in jeopardy, with union and district leaders engaged in a protracted battle over proposed changes to the system.

The two sides are expected to go to the negotiating table Aug. 20 to sort out their differences, and have been meeting separately with mediators in the interim. But the rift is wide enough that the union, in a recent newsletter, called on teachers to prepare for a strike if negotiations fall through.

The district says the time is right for a change: ProComp, or the Professional Compensation Plan for teachers, as it is formally known, was ushered in by Denver voters in 2004, and the agreement calls for negotiations every three years, school officials say.

“ProComp was never intended to become a static plan like a traditional master salary schedule. Over time it needed to be adjusted based on the needs of teachers and the district and the window called for the negotiations is right now,” said schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, pointing out that the district and the union also signed an agreement to open negotiations on ProComp in February of this year.

School officials also say that the changes proposed by the 74,000-student district—including raising teachers’ starting salaries and giving additional incentives to teachers at hard-to-staff schools and of high-demand subjects like math and science—would help attract more teachers.

But the union says it is too early to take those steps.

President Kim Ursetta of the 3,200-member Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says that while small changes have been made to ProComp over the past two years, she wants to wait until an external evaluation of the pay system, due next year and based on three years of ProComp data, is released before agreeing to any major changes.

“People are always asking me how ProComp’s working, and I say I don’t know,” said Ms. Ursetta. “We want to make sure we are very careful about looking at data and looking at the impact of the changes.”

Where to Put the Money

The only study released on ProComp so far is by Edward W. Wiley, an assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, that looked at two years’ worth of data. It found that teachers who opted into ProComp raised student test scores only slightly compared with their peers who did not take part in the pay plan.

But Mr. Wiley points out that the new system is still in its early stages. “To say it is working or not working are shortsighted responses,” he said. “Reforms take a while to mature, especially in complex urban school districts such as [Denver].”

The district proposal would give ProComp money to increase teacher salaries in the early years, and raise the starting salary from $35,000 to $44,000.

School and union officials agree that Denver has among the lowest teacher salaries in neighboring school districts, a situation that they believe is hurting recruitment and retention.

In a letter to teachers in May, Mr. Bennet pointed out that teachers with fewer than 12 years of experience are nearly 20 times more likely to leave the district than those with 12 or more years of experience.

Denver teachers’ union President Kim Ursetta listens during a discussion in June between the school district and her union about the ProComp performance-pay plan. The parties are in conflict over proposed changes to the system.

But the union says the district’s proposal would cause teacher salaries to freeze after a certain point. Ms. Ursetta said the union instead favors an across-the-board increase of 3.5 percent in the traditional salary schedule, which would raise the starting salary to $38,000. She added that she would also like the district to institute more induction and mentoring programs to help keep new teachers.

Mr. Wiley’s study included surveys of principals. Fewer than 14 percent said they believed that the financial incentives currently being offered to teach in hard-to-staff schools were attracting the best teachers.

The district wants to raise the amount of bonuses for teachers in such schools and in hard-to-fill subjects. Under its proposal, teachers would get an almost threefold increase in their ProComp bonuses, from $1,067 each in 2007-08 to $2,925. The union agrees that bonuses for teachers in those hard-to-fill jobs need to be raised, but not by nearly as much.

Behavior Unaffected?

The impasse in Denver is significant at a time when many states and districts are considering, or have already put in place, systems of performance-based pay, often referred to as merit pay.

The idea has traditionally been anathema to teachers’ unions, which typically favor a single salary schedule in which teachers are paid by seniority and education level. Lately, however, the concept has gained popularity among politicians, and both the Democratic and Republican presumptive presidential nominees, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, have spoken out in favor of performance pay.

Recent years have also seen some collaborative union-district partnerships on performance pay, with Denver and Minneapolis being among the earliest.

See other stories on education issues in Colorado. See data on Colorado’s public school system.

In Denver, voters agreed to pay $25 million a year in additional property taxes to implement ProComp and help ensure its success. Teachers were attracted by the fact that the system did not reward teachers just for raising student test scores, but for a combination of factors, including knowledge and skills, performance evaluations, student growth based on test scores, and for serving in high-risk schools as well as in positions that are hard to staff, including math, science, and special education.

The increases were incorporated into teachers’ base salaries, instead of being handed out as one-time bonuses.

About half of Denver’s teachers have opted in to ProComp over the two years it has been in place, and all new teachers are automatically enrolled.

But each year, only part of the funds in ProComp, which add up to $31 million including interest, have been paid out. This school year, for instance, less than $7 million will be given out because of the way the program is structured. School officials say there will be a surplus of $86 million in ProComp coffers by the end of 2008-09.

John Hereford, a co-chairman of a committee on ProComp set up by A-Plus Denver, a nonprofit citizens’ group, said changes are necessary because the system does not appear to be operating as it should.

“We know it is not affecting behavior as we had expected it to, and every year that goes by makes it that much harder to reform,” he said.

Observers say there is some anecdotal evidence that ProComp has attracted more teachers to the district. “We do hear reports from those involved in the hiring process that certain positions are easier to recruit,” Mr. Wiley said.

But the jury is still out on whether pay-for-performance plans actually help student achievement.

“It is fair to say that, across the country, there are not many good, rigorous studies that show performance pay improves student performance,” said Paul Teske, the dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver, who is conducting the independent study of ProComp that is due out next year.

The ‘Right’ Components

One of the reasons for ProComp’s status as a model plan is the labor-management collaboration in its creation. “The union had to vote positively on ProComp, or it would be dead in the water back then,” Mr. Teske said.

This time around, district officials are trying to impose the changes, union officials say. “Previously, any proposals that would come forward were collaborative, and changes were jointly developed,” Ms. Ursetta said. “But this proposal from the district is coming solely from them.”

Observers like Mr. Hereford of A-Plus Denver acknowledge that union-district cooperation is important to the survival and success of ProComp. But he and others say residents never intended for ProComp funds to be spread out as an increase for all teachers, such as the one the union is demanding.

“A functional, collaborative working relationship with the union is in everybody’s interest,” said Mr. Hereford, a renewable-energy developer who has two children in Denver’s public schools. “It is hard to imagine far-reaching reform would be possible otherwise.”

On the other hand, he said, “letting ProComp drift into a base-pay-type system doesn’t have that surgically precise ability to affect and motivate teachers in an important and direct manner.”

Brad Jupp, a senior policy adviser on ProComp to Superintendent Bennet, said he is disappointed that the union has sought conflict over the proposed changes.

“This was not the way we did business when we were devising ProComp. What made the collaboration work is we were willing to work shoulder to shoulder on tough issues,” said Mr. Jupp who was a union representative when ProComp was first negotiated and who helped lead the initiative from its start.

Despite the differences, all parties voice hope that they will reach an agreement when they go to the table in August.

Ms. Ursetta, when asked about the possibility of a strike, will only say that her goal is to get to a settlement.

Thomas Boasberg, the chief operating officer of the Denver schools, said that there is room for compromise in the district’s proposal, and that he is hopeful of a “good result” given the long history of union-district collaboration over ProComp.

Mr. Wiley and others also note that the plan itself is not in danger of being shelved.

“When I look at the two sides of collective bargaining, I see a lot of similarities there,” Mr. Wiley said. “Nobody’s saying, let’s throw it out; everyone agrees that those [original] components are the right ones.”

Mr. Teske, the university dean, said he believes the proposed changes will only strengthen ProComp.

“If and when it gets negotiated and approved, it will be a better plan,” he said, “and it will have moved the national performance-pay movement in a better direction.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Model Plan Of Merit Pay In Ferment


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