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.

Not over yet

A firm reprimand — but no penalty yet — for two Tennessee districts that defy deadline to share student data

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

So what will be the consequences for the two Tennessee school districts that missed a state-imposed deadline to share contact information for their students with charter schools? For now, disappointment from the state’s top education official.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had promised to issue consequences if the two districts, Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, did not meet the Monday deadline.

But when the end of the day passed — as expected — without any data-sharing, McQueen declined to penalize the districts. Instead, she issued a stern statement.

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

The anticlimactic decision comes after weeks of back-and-forth between the state and its two largest school districts over student contact information — the latest front in the districts’ ongoing enrollment war with charter schools.

Charter schools are pressing the districts to share information about their students, arguing that they need to be able to contact local families to inform them about their school options. District leaders argue that a federal rule about student privacy lets local districts decide who gets that information. (The districts have chosen to distribute student contact information to other entities, including yearbook companies.)

The state’s attorney general sided with charter schools, saying that marketing to families is an acceptable use of student contact information and districts were required to hand it over to charter schools that requested it. Both school boards cite a committee discussion in February when state lawmakers sought to make sure the information could not be used as a “recruiting tool” as evidence that the intent of the law runs counter to the state’s application of it.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Now, the conflict has potential to head to court. Shelby County Schools already committed last month to writing a letter outlining its arguments to support the Nashville district if it decides to file a lawsuit against the state.

As the deadline drew near, the two school boards teamed up to flesh out their positions and preview what that legal battle might look like. Over the weekend, board chairs Anna Shepherd in Nashville and Chris Caldwell in Memphis penned a letter to USA Today’s Tennessee papers arguing the districts should not be required to hand over student information to a state-run district facing deep financial, operational and academic woes.

They also pointed to a recent $2.2 million settlement between a parents and a Nashville charter network over spam text messages promoting enrollment at its schools as evidence the transaction could lead to invasion of privacy.

Clarification (Sept. 25, 2017): This story has been updated to clarify the source of McQueen’s early comments on penalties she was discussing at the time. 

deja vu

For second straight year, two charter schools denied by Memphis board appeal to the state

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

For the second year in a row, charter schools seeking to open in Memphis are appealing to the state after being rejected by the local board.

Two proposed all-girls schools, The Academy All Girls Charter School and Rich ED Academy of Leaders, went before the Tennessee Board of Education last week to plead for the right to open. Citing weaknesses in the schools’ planning, the Shelby County Schools board had rejected them, along with nine other charter applicants, last month. It approved three schools, many fewer than in previous years.

After state officials and charter operators complained last year that the Memphis school board didn’t have clear reasons for rejecting schools, the district revamped its charter oversight to make the review process more transparent. Now, five independent evaluators help scrutinize schools’ lengthy applications — a job that until this year had been done by three district officials with many other responsibilities. (The district also doubled the size of its charter schools office.)

The new appeals suggest that at least some charter operators aren’t satisfied by the changes.

District officials said the schools did not have clear goals for their academic programs and relied too heavily on grant funding. The board for Rich Ed Academy of Learners said in its appeal letter the district’s concerns were ambiguous and that the school would provide a unique project-based learning model for girls of color from low-income families.

The other school’s board said in its letter that the district’s decision was not in the best interest of students. A school official declined to elaborate.

The state board blasted Shelby County Schools’ charter revocation and approval processes last year, ultimately approving one appeal. That cleared the way for the first charter school in Memphis overseen by the panel.

The state board will vote on the new appeals at its quarterly meeting Friday, Oct. 20. If the state board approves the appeals, the local board would have 30 days to decide whether to authorize the school or relinquish oversight to the state board.