A Merit-Pay Standoff in Denver

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Tim Pannell / Corbis

At its heart is a notion everyone seems to agree on: better teachers deserve better compensation. But it's the finer details that are calling into question the future of Denver Public Schools' acclaimed pay-for-performance program.

Denver's ProComp program, short for the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, was implemented in 2006 in a joint effort by the school district and the local teachers' union to recruit and retain good teachers. Since February, however, union and district leaders have been butting heads over a series of changes to ProComp proposed by superintendent Michael Bennet. The biggest sticking point is his proposal to cap base salaries while increasing performance-based bonuses. The protracted contract negotiations already led some teachers to stage sick-outs in May; others have been handing out to parents flyers denouncing the district's contract offer as school kicks off this week. And if the two sides can't resolve their differences in mediation talks, scheduled to begin Wednesday, the teachers have threatened a possible strike next week — just as thousands of Democratic Convention attendees begin to arrive in the city.

In the past, American teachers could count on earning more money the longer they served. But a growing number of schools have begun to tie pay to performance. About 20% of U.S. children are now in school districts experimenting with merit pay, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) at Vanderbilt University. Denver's ProComp was one of the first of these programs, and everyone from local teachers to Barack Obama has cited it as a role model. "The whole education world is watching right now," James Guthrie, a public-policy-and-education professor at Vanderbilt and NCPI's executive director, says of the high-profile contract negotiations. "If Denver founders, it will be with a giant thud."

Under the system, teachers are paid a base salary and then rewarded with bonuses if they meet any of nine metrics, such as working in a high-needs school, getting a good evaluation from their principal or having their students exceed expectations on state exams. All new teachers must participate, but ProComp has been popular among veterans as well — half of the district's teachers have signed up since 2006.

The program is funded by the $25 million Denver voters agreed in 2005 to pay annually through additional property taxes. To make better use of that money, Bennet is proposing several changes that could lead to all teachers seeing a jump in their pay, some by as much as $9,000 annually. But many of those increases would come in boosts to incentive pay. And while the district's offer would raise starting salaries from $35,000 to $42,000, base salaries of more-tenured teachers would not rise.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has rebuked the proposal, calling instead for an across-the-board salary bump. "If the district continues efforts to fiddle around with bonuses vs. salary-building," says union president Kim Ursetta, "it hurts [our] efforts to say, 'Yes, it's O.K. to try something new and different.' "

Ursetta and other union leaders say they don't want to dismantle ProComp; they just want to hold off making the changes until they can be studied more. The first definitive report on ProComp's impact on student achievement won't be completed until late 2009, though early results are promising. One pilot study found that students whose teachers enrolled in the program performed slightly better on standardized tests compared with students with non-ProComp teachers. Denver also saw statewide assessment scores improve substantially this past school year, with the district now outperforming state gains in all grade levels in reading, writing and science. Moreover, a larger number of teachers are applying to work at Denver's toughest schools, one of the chief goals of the program.

Amid these early signs of success, even some union members think their representatives have taken hostilities too far. One group of teachers has started an online petition for an immediate contract settlement, and more than 300 teachers have signed it. Many of these teachers believe the district's offer is not perfect but reasonable enough. "The union's position just does not make sense to me — it appears to be opposition for the sake of opposition," says Chrisanne Lahue, 47, an English teacher for 22 years and a signer of the petition. Both sides, she adds, "should just roll up their sleeves and get their work done."

With reporting by Rita Healy / Denver