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.
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.