Teaching Profession

Teacher Vote on Merit Pay Down to Wire

By Bess Keller — March 17, 2004 8 min read

Teachers here are marking their ballots for and against a new way of getting paid, with the fate of the nation’s most comprehensive and closely watched departure from the traditional salary scale hanging in the balance.

Backers of the compensation plan, including district and local union leaders, expect the tally to be close when voting ends this week.

A poll taken earlier this month showed those who had made up their minds to be about evenly divided, leaving more than 20 percent undecided. Proponents have been making the rounds at schools in recent weeks to try winning teachers over to their side.

“The undecideds are going to really shape our fate, and their support fluctuates dramatically, just like before a strike vote,” said Brad Jupp, a middle school teacher and union activist who has helped lead the differential-pay initiative from its start five years ago.

Should the voting go against the plan, teachers’ fears amid a difficult economy and pressures to raise student achievement in this urban district of about 70,000 students will have had a lot to do with it.

“If I waited about 10 years [to see how the system was going] and studied the plan all that time, then I might believe” union and district officials, harrumphed Vi Sullivan, a teacher of English as a second language with more than 30 years’ experience. “Any teacher here more than 10 years knows you cannot trust the district.”

Many teachers in the Mile High City say they are tired of what they see as a lack of respect from district administrators, mandated programs that seem to come and go on a whim, and economic sacrifices. This year, they feel burned by the loss of raises that fell prey to belt-tightening.

What’s more, some contend, union leaders have gotten too cozy with district higher-ups and failed to adequately protect teachers’ interests.

If members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association end up favoring the proposal, they will have registered support for giving educators a choice between the current compensation system and the markedly different one that has been outlined. The framework, which would become part of the contract currently being negotiated, proposes to drop years in the classroom from the pay scale and give weight instead to a host of factors directly related to raising student achievement or finding teachers for hard-to-fill slots.

That approach contrasts with the traditional pay system, used in Denver and across the nation, that bases salary on education attained and years of service.

The proposal hinges on voter approval of a property-tax rate increase in the city. The boost would raise $25 million annually earmarked exclusively for teacher raises apart from cost-of-living adjustments. The levy vote is likely to come in November of next year, by which time the plan should be fully fleshed out.

“If we say yes, at least the district is going for the money, and then each of us has a choice to elect to go into the program,” reasoned Russ Smith, a veteran music teacher at South High School. “Unless I’m missing something, I don’t see a downside.”

Public Perception

The plan promises that teachers now on the payroll could stick with the current system or opt into the new one anytime over the first seven years, but no later. New teachers would automatically be enrolled. The proposed system would be phased in over two school years, starting in 2005-06.

Proponents of the endeavor argue that a significant jump in teacher compensation is politically impossible without a change in the way teachers are paid. And they appear confident that Denver residents would support a tax increase that would add about $40 annually to the taxes for the average home if the new plan gets approval from the teachers.

“It addresses the public perception that teachers don’t do anything for more money,” said Jeffrey Buck, a teacher and union representative at South High who worked on designing the proposed system.

Especially important to that, the advocates say, are the parts of the plan that link raises to student achievement as measured by the high-profile scores on state tests.

Without more visible demands on teachers, pay and benefit hikes will almost certainly be stuck in the zero to 7 percent range that has been the norm for 25 years, said Richard H. Allen, who oversees the district’s finances and worked on the policy. That would not put Denver in the big leagues for teacher talent, he and other officials believe. The new plan could pay for an average annual jump of 12 percent.

“Teachers have to have a conversation with the community about ... providing the outcomes citizens are most concerned with,” added Andre N. Pettigrew, who heads the district’s human-resources department.

Everyone agrees the measure is complex. It sets out three areas in which teachers could earn additional amounts—usually a percentage of starting yearly pay for a credentialed teacher, currently $32,971: acquiring new skills and knowledge, getting satisfactory evaluations, and demonstrating growth in student achievement. A fourth way teachers could make more money would be by working in high-poverty schools or in subjects where there are shortages of teachers.

Not Just Test Scores

Most new pay plans elsewhere reward educators for schoolwide improvement on student tests or showing through reviews that they have new skills. The most common variation is to pay teachers in shortage subjects or high-poverty schools.

The Denver initiative combines those elements and attempts to link individual teachers’ efforts with academic progress made by their students.

The history of the proposed system goes back five years, to when the school board sought to pay teachers based on their own students’ test scores. But the classroom teachers’ association balked. The National Education Association affiliate is the collective bargaining agent for the city’s 4,500 teachers, 3,200 of whom belong to that union.

Under a compromise, teachers in a pilot program were allowed to set their own measurable student-achievement goals, subject to approval by an administrator.

During the experiment, the vast majority of teachers in 16 schools won bonuses of $1,500 for meeting a pair of objectives. An evaluation of the project showed that meeting the goals was not particularly linked to better student achievement, but that setting high and well-defined objectives was. (“Denver Pay Plan Offers Lessons, Review Says,” Dec. 12, 2001.)

Teachers in the pilot schools, meanwhile, voted against continuing the system, which many believed the district was not equipped for.

With those results emerging, the union and the district decided to design a broader pay system that would include student growth as just one component.

For the past few weeks, the joint compensation task force has been in full throttle explaining the plan to teachers. Added to a continually updated Web site on the deal, a newsletter, and at least two other rounds of meetings in schools last year, teams of union leaders and district administrators have been stumping for the plan in school libraries and chorus rooms.

Pro and Con

When Mr. Jupp hit Thomas Jefferson High School last week, with a sweater tied around his waist and a slightly disheveled air, it was the unionist’s 48th school since the end of last month. Greeting about 25 mostly grim-faced teachers, he touted the pay plan as “a huge step forward.”

“If you enter the plan,” he continued, “you’ll have more choices to build a pay package” that can reward newer teachers faster, keep senior teachers from ever maxing out on the salary scale, and increase lifetime earnings.

In return, the teachers lobbed question after question, at one point criticizing Mr. Jupp for preparing to leave for a similar talk at another school. He stayed.

The teachers expressed frustration over the paychecks that did not grow this year, as well as larger classes, less cooperative parents, and emphasis on state test scores. They were skeptical that the evaluation system still to be worked out would be fair, that the district’s payroll department could handle the complexities of the plan, and that Denver voters would support a tax increase.

“We cannot vote for this because things are not set in stone yet,” said one.

After the meeting, a biology teacher with three years of experience said he liked much of the plan, including the provision that college courses and other professional development would count only after teachers showed they could apply the knowledge to their work.

“I’d vote yes if I could,” Scott Thomas offered, noting that he was not a union member.

National experts generally applaud the Denver venture, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “It’s obvious that the [traditional] system is not working for a lot of kids, especially poor and minority kids,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington that is associated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

“And until some folks like those in Denver try out new ideas,” he said, “we’re not going to have the answer.”

But Michael Allen, the program director for teacher quality at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver and the parent of a student in the district, expressed concern that the incentive for teachers to work at high-poverty schools was not enough. Under the plan, it would be pegged at 3 percent of the base pay of fully credentialed beginning teachers, for about $1,000 more in salary each year in such a school.

Said Mr. Allen: “I’m not sure that we have the amount of time that it would take for a new approach to have significant impact because our schools are facing a crisis now.”

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