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.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.