Rethinking ProComp

Denver teachers confused, frustrated by parts of pay-for-performance system, report finds

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post
A teacher at Teller Elementary in 2012.

As Denver’s school district and teachers union gear up to renegotiate the district’s pioneering pay-for-performance system, a new report shows teachers find it confusing and complicated.

They’re frustrated by limitations that restrict their base pay from growing after 14 years and irked by the fact that not all teachers are eligible to earn all bonuses.

Researchers gathered feedback about the system, called ProComp, from 300 teachers and special service providers such as school psychologists, nurses and counselors.

The system was groundbreaking when it first went into effect after voters agreed in 2005 to fund it through a minimum additional $25 million in taxes per year.

Denver teachers get a base salary based on their years of experience and level of education. They can increase it by completing training, meeting student learning goals or earning an advanced degree. ProComp also pays them incentives on top of that base.

For instance, teachers can earn a monthly bonus for working in a hard-to-staff position — such as high school special education — or at a hard-to-serve school with a high percentage of low-income students. Some teachers get one-time bonuses if their students do well on state tests or if their school is considered “top performing.”

The more than 4,800 teachers and other professionals who participate in ProComp make an average of $53,022 in base pay this year and an average of $5,262 in bonuses, according to the district. (There are a small number of veteran teachers who don’t participate in ProComp.)

But the difference between incentives that grow teachers’ base salaries and those that don’t — and the fact that the dollar amounts vary — is confusing, teachers said.

“I have no idea what my paycheck means,” one teacher told researchers.

The report was commissioned by Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, and paid for by the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation. (Rose also supports Chalkbeat.) Other key findings include:

  • Many teachers think of ProComp incentives as part of their salary, not as bonuses. One teacher said, “ProComp is just my salary repackaged and given back to me for more work.”
  • Because the qualifications for earning a bonus can change year to year, teachers find it hard to predict how much money they’ll make, which makes financial planning difficult.
  • Teachers are competitive when it comes to who gets incentives. When asked if some teachers should get more money than others and under what circumstances, most defended the incentives they currently earn and were wary of others getting a bigger slice of the funding.
  • Teachers of grades that don’t take state tests, such as first and second grade, are frustrated they can’t earn the extra money given to teachers whose students show high growth. Lower-grade teachers argue they help prepare kids for those tests.
  • Some teachers said offering bonuses for student test scores can have perverse outcomes. Teachers said they can end up resenting high-performing students who opt out or low-performing students who do poorly.
  • The ability for teachers to continue to significantly grow their base pay beyond 14 years of service is important to most. Limitations added to ProComp in 2008 were disheartening to many teachers. “When I max out my earning potential for base pay, it is so de-motivating,” one teacher said.
  • Many teachers don’t want the district’s performance evaluation system, known as LEAP, to be tied to their compensation, partly because they think the ratings are too subjective.

Teachers union officials said the report confirmed what they’d previously heard.

“There were no shocks for us,” said union executive director Pam Shamburg.

In fact, the conclusions are similar to those in a 2014 report from a “design team” of eight DPS teachers and administrators who surveyed teachers, studied the history of ProComp and researched pay-for-performance systems in other districts and industries.

The design team came up with eight recommendations, including that the next iteration of ProComp should be easy for teachers to understand and include opportunities for teachers to increase their base pay beyond their 14th year of service.

The design team report was supposed to lay the groundwork for ProComp renegotiations. But progress stalled, partly because of competing priorities, district and union officials said.

Janet Lopez, a senior program officer at the Rose Community Foundation, said she hopes this latest report re-energizes the two sides. This will be the third time the district and the union have fully renegotiated ProComp, which has led some to nickname it ProComp 3.0.

“We do think it is possible for the district and the union to work in partnership together,” she said. “But we did feel like things had reached an impasse, and they needed a nudge to get going.”

The current ProComp agreement between the district and the union expires in August. But officials on both sides said they expect the agreement will be extended while the sides get together to answer some big questions such as, “What should be the goals of a pay-for-performance teacher compensation system?”

“A lot of the criticism of the current system is that it doesn’t accomplish its goal, but there was no joint consensus on what the goals were,” Shamburg said. “We’re working with the district to do the groundwork: What do experts say compensation can and can’t accomplish?

“Once we agree on joint goals, we can look at what would get us there,” she added.

The union has some broad goals of its own.

“We want our teachers in Denver Public Schools to feel they are viewed as valuable and they can afford to work in DPS and make a career in teaching,” Shamburg said.

Debbie Hearty, the chief human resources officer for DPS, said the district wants “a system that really does what voters want us to do, which is make sure it attracts and retains really good teachers based on performance, especially in service to our highest priority schools.”

But union president Henry Roman said DPS does a better job attracting teachers than retaining them. Twenty percent of Denver teachers did not return this school year, which is higher than the state average, according to statistics from the Colorado Department of Education.

Correction: A previous version of this story said a ProComp salary cap prevents teachers’ base pay from growing after 14 years. Limitations restrict that growth but don’t totally prevent it.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.