Education

There’s Not Much Performance in Denver Schools’ ‘Pay for Performance’ System

Signs at a rally as public school teachers strike in Denver, Colo., February 12, 2019. (Michael Ciaglo/Reuters)
Media coverage of the Denver teachers’ strike has gotten the story wrong because it proceeds from a faulty premise.

On Monday, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) went on strike, the latest in a series of teacher strikes that have erupted across the country over the past year. While Denver teachers have voiced concerns about class sizes, support staff, and starting salaries, the consensus is that the issue at the heart of the strike is teacher frustration with Denver’s once-celebrated ProComp pay system, which was jointly developed by the DCTA and Denver Public Schools in 2005.

Back then, ProComp was heralded as a pioneering step forward on pay-for-performance/merit pay, and that framing  has colored coverage of the strike. Even before the strike started, education outlet Chalkbeat ran an explainer headlined, “How a once-promising merit pay system led Denver teachers to the brink of a strike.” This week, the Washington Post reported “Denver teachers strike in bid to dismantle pay-for-performance system.” The New York Times account was headlined, “Denver Teachers’ Strike Puts Performance-Based Pay to the Test.”

The only problem? This narrative is bunk. For all the talk about “merit” and “performance,” ProComp is almost wholly devoid of any links between pay and teacher performance.

As Denver Public Schools’ compensation chart illustrates, ProComp allows teachers to earn an annual $3,851 pay bump for obtaining an advanced degree or license; a $2,738 boost for working in a “hard to staff” field or a “hard to serve” school; $1,540 for working in a “ProComp Title I” school, which is different than a “hard to serve” school; $855 for completing the requisite “professional development units”; and between $800 and $5,000 for filling designated leadership roles. There is also a yearly bonus for teachers based on students’ state-wide-exam results.

None of these bonuses, save perhaps for the last one, are performance-based. The only other component of ProComp resembling anything even remotely close to a performance-based incentive for individual teachers is the $855 they can receive for a satisfactory evaluation on a paper-driven performance rubric — and that figure falls by half for longtime educators. (Just how modest is such a sum in context? Average teacher pay in Denver before incentives is about $51,000, and the district has already offered teachers a 10 percent raise.)

A couple points here merit note. First, contra the coverage of the strike, the Denver pay system which has sparked so much backlash is not actually rewarding performance. Rather, ProComp is mostly designed to reward the usual credentialism and to steer teachers to work in certain schools or fields. That’s all fine, and some of it makes good sense, but it’s a misnomer to characterize it as constituting a “pay-for-performance” scheme.

Second, to the extent that ProComp seeks to reward performance in any fashion, it has opted for school-wide bonuses to schools that make large gains on math and reading scores (what the district euphemistically terms “top performing-high growth” schools). Reading and math scores matter, a lot. But education reform’s fascination with paying for test points is troubling on several counts. It is bizarrely detached from the instruction that most teachers (including those who teach science, foreign languages, music, or history) are asked to focus on and has encouraged corner-cutting and outright cheating. It also has parents concerned about narrow curricula and soulless instruction, and teachers feeling like insurance salesmen.

Performance pay is always tricky, but a raft of for-profit and non-profit organizers have muddled through in pretty sensible ways — tapping human judgment, seeking to assess the full contribution that an employee makes, and relying more upon promotions and raises than one-time bonuses.

Denver’s situation is so noteworthy because Denver is no laggard. Indeed, for many years, it has been celebrated as a “model” district by reformers. So it’s disheartening how little progress the city has actually made. Reformers wound up being so focused on finding ways to pay teachers to switch schools or raise test scores that they missed what might have been a larger opportunity to reshape the teaching profession by reimagining how teachers’ job descriptions, pay structures, and responsibilities could work. Indeed, given the limited dollar amounts involved (a 1–2 percent bonus if a teacher aces his personal evaluation), it’s hard to imagine why anyone ever expected ProComp to be a game-changer.

As teacher strikes continue apace and efforts to improve schooling move on from the enthusiasm of the Bush and Obama years, there may emerge new opportunities to rethink teacher pay. If they do, reformers should seize them by focusing more intently on how well teachers do their jobs, and less on where they work or how many boxes they check.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brendan Bell is the education-program manager at AEI.

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