ProComp findings positive, tough to prove

Student achievement is up and teacher turnover is down since Denver Public Schools implemented its merit pay plan for teachers in 2006, but it’s tough to prove a direct link between the two.

CU-Denver researcher Robert Reichardt at Tuesday's press conference on ProComp.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Washington on Tuesday released their report on the plan known as ProComp, or the Professional Compensation system for teachers.

The external evaluation was required as part of the $25 million tax increase approved by Denver voters in November 2005 to fund the innovative pay plan, which rewards teachers based on ten different components and now covers nearly 80 percent of DPS teachers.

“Six years into ProComp, as we release the study … we show the Denver Public Schools in a dramatically different place than when the voters of Denver chose to make that investment in 2005,” DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said at a morning news conference at Skinner Middle School.

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He ticked off gains in student achievement, in teacher retention and in student enrollment, which surpassed the 80,000-mark this year for the first time since 1974.

“Many factors go into that … but clearly ProComp is a very important part,” Boasberg said, noting, “One example, for every open teaching position, we see five times more applicants than we saw when Denver voters made the investment in ProComp six years ago.”

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, was an early advocate of ProComp who fought changes to the plan in 2008 that shifted some permanent increases to annual bonuses.

“I know we don’t have definitive answers for many things,” he said at the press conference, “but it’s certainly a trend, it’s trending up, and it’s heading in the right direction and that’s highly encouraging for all of us.”

Difficult to isolate effects of ProComp, among other reforms

ProComp was implemented in DPS along with a number of other changes, including the district strategic reform plan called the Denver Plan. Between 2006 and today, the district also joined the statewide Public Employees Retirement Association, which may have made DPS more attractive to other Colorado teachers.

Skinner Middle School social worker Joe Waldon spoke at Tuesday's press conference.

Robert Reichardt, the research team director with CU-Denver, said it’s difficult to isolate the effects of ProComp from other DPS reform measures.

“I would never recommend that districts stop all reforms so you can study one reform,” he said. “I think DPS has followed the model of, ‘Do whatever it takes’ and implemented a lot of things that may be making a difference.”

Still, “ProComp appears to make a difference,” Reichardt said. “Clearly, ProComp helped build system capacity around data systems and professional development and HR that we think led to other reforms within DPS. Clearly, during ProComp implementation, recruitment and retention improved and there’s some evidence ProComp was a factor in improving retention.”

For example, between 2004-05 and 2008-09, teacher attrition in DPS declined from 17 percent to 13 percent. Attrition also dipped elsewhere in Colorado but not quite as much – it declined from 14 percent to 11 percent for the remaining Denver metro region and from 14 percent to 12 percent for the rest of the state.

“We estimate, at most, DPS was able to retain 160 teachers more per year due to ProComp,” Reichardt said.

In achievement, the numbers of students scoring proficient or advanced on state exams has grown in both reading and math over the past six years. In 2005, 40 percent of DPS students were reading at grade level compared to 49 percent in 2011. Math proficiency during that time rose from 29 percent to 41 percent.

“How much of that was due to ProComp, our design doesn’t allow us to say,” Reichardt said. “We think there is some evidence that some of it is due to ProComp.”

Two ProComp components – rewards for achieving student growth objectives set at the beginning of the school year and for exceeding expectations on CSAP exams in the spring – strongly correlated with teacher effectiveness, he said. Researchers defined teacher effectiveness by using “value-added models” to estimate teacher contributions to student achievement on state tests.

Other components, including the attainment of advanced degrees, did not appear to have any correlation with teacher effectiveness, Reichardt said.

ProComp agreement up for negotiation, expires August 2013

Results of the external evaluation, which mesh with earlier results of internal studies by CU-Boulder researchers, will be used as the teachers’ union and the district begin to negotiate the ProComp agreement, which expires in August 2013. The external study costs $360,000.

Skinner staff on ProComp

“The thing I like about ProComp is that it rewards me for my hard work when we see results with the kiddos.”
Joe Waldon, social worker

“In a time when we’re asked more as teachers, we are rewarding teachers equitably for the work they put in.”
Mathew Dennis, teacher

Roman, the DCTA president, said negotiators may look at reducing the number of ProComp components. He agreed with the finding that many teachers and principals still do not understand the complex system, which he described as having “too many moving parts.”

He also expressed concerns about the finding that there’s “limited evidence” of a link between advanced degrees and improved student achievement.

“Just like when you’re trying to jump start the economy, you don’t see results in three months or six months,” Roman said. “Sometimes you see the results a year later or two years later.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, Boasberg presented a symbolic paper check for $233,711.58 to a Skinner teacher and social worker. The amount represents ProComp incentive payments earned by 21 Skinner teachers in 2010-11 – an average of $11,000 per teacher.

Joe Waldon, the school social worker, said he joined ProComp when it launched six years ago.

“ProComp wasn’t going to make me work harder – my work ethic demands that – but the thing I like about ProComp is that it rewards me for my hard work when we see results with the kiddos,” Waldon said. “So it’s really nice to know when I’m here late in the evening or on a Saturday or on a Sunday … that there will be some financial compensation for that.”

At Skinner, in northwest Denver, the numbers of students reading proficiently has increased from 33 percent in 2005 to 50 percent in 2011.

Matthew Dennis, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at the school, said Skinner teachers “push one another” and that ProComp “motivates teachers to work collaboratively to raise the bar for all of our students.”

“In a time when we’re asked more as teachers, we are rewarding teachers equitably for the work they put in,” Dennis said, adding, “It doesn’t necessarily translate to me working harder. The people here at Skinner are hard workers already. But what it does is it shines a light on the good work that we’re doing and it incentivizes others to follow suit with what we’re doing here.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.