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.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.

An Introduction

What you need to know about Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ interim superintendent

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat
Aleesia Johnson was named the interim superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.

Even before she was chosen as interim superintendent last week, Aleesia Johnson was a rising star in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Johnson spearheaded the district’s innovation strategy under departing superintendent Lewis Ferebee, developing controversial partnerships with nonprofit or charter operators and giving schools more freedom.

About Aleesia Johnson, IPS’ new interim superintendent:

  • Johnson started at Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 overseeing the district’s innovation schools. She was promoted to deputy superintendent of academics earlier this year.
  • Johnson started her career as a teacher through Teach for America. She came to Indianapolis to teach at KIPP Indy and later led the charter network’s middle school. She has also worked for Teach for America’s Indianapolis office.
  • She graduated from Agnes Scott College and received master’s degrees from the University of Michigan and Oakland City University.
  • An Evansville native, Johnson comes from a family of educators. Her mother was a longtime teacher and is now an elementary school principal. Her grandfather was one of the few black administrators in Evansville in the 1970s and 1980s, she said.
  • Johnson has three children who all attend district schools.

Her work overseeing innovation schools — sometimes used as a turnaround approach for the most struggling schools — has transformed the district into a more decentralized, hybrid model that has attracted the national spotlight. Because of innovation schools, Indianapolis is widely regarded by reform advocates as a district among the “most inventive and dynamic in the country,” as the Center on Reinventing Public Education put it last year.

Now Johnson, 40, is the first African-American woman to serve as the district’s superintendent, and she appears a likely contender when the district begins its search for a permanent successor to Ferebee.

“I’m under no illusion of the challenges that face our district and the tough decisions that will have to be made,” Johnson said in a district blog post about her appointment.

As deputy superintendent of academics, Johnson has often been a public face of the district, speaking on panels about racial equity in education and forums about the district’s innovation work. Personable and confident, she’s well respected within the district and in Indianapolis education circles, even though her work with innovation schools can be controversial.

As a key leader in Ferebee’s administration, Johnson is closely tied to charter schools and school reform in Indianapolis. A former Teach for America and KIPP Indy leader, she has said she supports the path the district is on, which means she’ll likely have the support of the majority of the school board. Johnson told the Center on Reinventing Public Education that she was drawn to Indianapolis Public Schools in 2015 because she “connected really strongly with the vision the superintendent laid out.”

“She’s had the opportunity to see first-hand some of our strategy and transformation efforts,” Ferebee said Friday.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the district would likely continue to broaden its innovation strategy. A district of some 30,000 students, made up of mostly students of color and from poor families, Indianapolis Public Schools serves about a quarter of its students in 20 innovation schools.

In interviews, Johnson has often touted how innovation schools can move more nimbly than schools that have to wait for district-level changes.

“I think what we’re trying to do is create a third way of thinking — how do you marry empowering schools with flexibility with lots of the resources that are available to schools in a traditional public schools district structure,” Johnson told the Reinventing America’s Schools project, a pro-charter school reform movement led by David Osborne.

It’s hard to make a blanket statement on the performance of innovation schools. Because most of them are less than three years old, many are graded based on the growth of their students alone without taking into account their proficiency levels. Many of the schools have seen early gains in passing rates on state tests.

Johnson has been upfront about the challenges of the innovation strategy. In the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” Osborne wrote that she acknowledges “constant problems to be worked out,” such as funding to support innovation schools and uprooting teachers when schools convert to innovation.

“It’s never, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” she said in the book. “It’s, ‘Oh, we’ve never done that, so let’s talk about it and figure out how to get it done.’”

In an interview with the local Indy Education blog, Johnson said she invites critics to see the changes strong leaders can make in innovation schools.

She also said innovation can allow community members to feel like they have ownership of the schools in their neighborhood: “I see this work as an incredible opportunity for there to be, unlike ever before, a much stronger community voice, much stronger way for parents to interact and engage in their schools.”

Still, Johnson was careful to note Friday that she won’t be a carbon-copy of her former boss, who has both won the hearts of many national reformers and rankled community members with the dramatic changes to the district. “I think obviously I am a different leader,” she said.

She won’t be immune to criticism. The IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that is critical of innovation schools, posted on Facebook about Johnson’s appointment to interim superintendent: “Although that is a great milestone for IPS in terms of equity and diversity, we have continued concern about the IPS agenda. The statement this appointment makes about pushing innovation schools and charter ‘choices’ on poor, and black and brown students is concerning — as charters have not proved to be more effective, nor equitable in their treatment of students.”

Others, though, including school board members, have heralded her appointment. Andrew Pillow, a teacher who worked with Johnson at KIPP Indy, wrote on the Indy Education blog that Johnson is “infinitely qualified and the perfect choice to lead Indianapolis Public Schools.”

So far, Johnson has said she will wait until the school board decides the superintendent search process to say whether she’s throwing her hat in the ring to lead the district long-term.

Asked again in her first television interview as interim superintendent this week, she said, “We shall see.”