Hold Up

Performance-pay negotiations in Denver catch on changes for high-needs schools

DCTA and DPS at a bargaining session at Manual High School.

Several months into negotiations over changes to ProComp, Denver’s 10-year-old taxpayer-funded incentive pay plan for teachers, the city’s school district and teachers union leaders are haggling over a proposal that would shift more bonus funds to teachers who work in high-needs schools.

The district would accomplish this shift by decreasing bonuses for teachers throughout the district whose schools are identified as top performing on the district’s school performance framework.

The overall dollar amount the district spends on the bonuses — $20.8 million per year — would remain the same.

Both Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools officials said during a bargaining session Thursday that they were eager to come to an agreement quickly, because many schools have already begun hiring for the upcoming school year and changes might be too late to incentivize teachers to work at any given school.

But DCTA negotiators said they need time to process the proposal and made a series of requests for information they said would help them understand its implications. Union representatives said that this was the first time the district has brought forward a concrete outline of proposed changes.

This is Denver Public Schools’ first round of union-district bargaining sessions since Colorado passed an open bargaining law in November 2014.

DCTA president Henry Roman told Chalkbeat late last year that he anticipated that the agreement would be finalized in January. The union and DPS have had six bargaining sessions since the start of the year.

The last agreement between DPS and the union was finalized in 2008, and is informally referred to as “ProComp 2.0.” The initial agreement was approved by the district’s board in 2004.

A study group convened by the union and the district in 2014 recommended that the district make significant changes to ProComp. One of the recommended changes was stronger incentives for teachers in high-needs schools.

The current round of negotiations was initially focused on clarifying the impact of changes to state standardized tests on ProComp, and on extending the current agreement in advance of a more comprehensive round of negotiations at the end of this year.

Historically, teachers have been eligible to receive bonuses for working at a school identified as top performing. Since schools are not being assigned an overall rating this year due to the change in assessments, the district is proposing that those incentives go to teachers at schools whose students have high growth scores on tests in 2014-15.

The district also proposed at Thursday’s meeting decreasing the top performing incentive in 2015-16 to fund increased bonuses for teachers in some of the district’s neediest schools.

In 2015-16, teachers at the 30 schools the district has identified as highest-need would be eligible for a $5,800 bonus if they had earned one of the top two scores on their evaluations the previous year. Teachers who earned the third-highest score would earn a $4,000 bonus. The current incentive is $2,481. Highest-need schools are identified based a number of criteria, including the percentage of special education students and percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The district would also expand the number of teachers eligible to earn a $2,481 bonus for teaching at a school identified as hard-to-serve — a broader category than “highest-need” — by including all schools that receive Title I funds from the federal government due to their high numbers of low-income students.

The funds for those changes would come from a reduction to bonuses for teachers at schools identified as top performing. Those teachers would now be eligible to earn $1,000 instead of $2,481.

More than 90 percent of the teachers whose bonuses would be decreased if the proposed shifts are approved are already receiving an additional bonus because they work at schools with track records of improving student learning, district officials said.

The DPS proposal also would tie some ProComp bonuses to the district’s evaluation system instead of directly to standardized test scores.

The DCTA team told district officials several times that pay alone would not lure teachers to struggling schools.

“One of biggest issues is, specifically in this group of schools, history’s repeated itself,” said Zachary Rupp, a music teacher and DCTA negotiator. “We haven’t seen significant changes to the other pieces that need to go into this puzzle.”

Sarah Marks, the district’s executive director of strategic school support, said, “We know this is just one piece of the puzzle. Our charge at this table is thinking about ProComp, one of the options we can use.”

DCTA representatives said they were concerned about which schools would be identified as the highest-need and how long the designation would last, and about tying ProComp to the district’s evaluation system.

In an email to members earlier this week, DCTA officials wrote that they are hesitant to decrease any teachers’ bonuses and shared a proposal based on funds the district might have if a bill that is making its way through the state legislature is approved.

“DCTA does not support taking money from one group of underpaid teachers to give to another group of underpaid teachers,” the email read. “DCTA believes that we need to find new money to increase compensation.”

DCTA left the district with a long list of data requests Thursday, including an overview of the methodology DPS uses to invoice the ProComp funds and an analysis of the level of effectiveness of teachers at various schools.

Friday morning, DPS sent an email to teachers outlining the district’s proposal. The subject line: “Can’t We Reach a Compromise to Help Teachers in Our High-Poverty Schools?”

The next round of bargaining is scheduled for April 9. The union and district agreed to extend the current agreement until April 17.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.