money matters

Now up for negotiation: ProComp, Denver’s teacher pay-for-performance system

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Teacher Haiti Johnson fields questions from students in her social studies class at Teller Elementary School in Denver.

Fresh off a round of packed public negotiations that resulted in a new five-year teacher contract, the Denver teachers union and Denver Public Schools are back at the bargaining table, this time discussing an overhaul of the district’s pioneering pay-for-performance system.

Under the system, called ProComp, teachers get salary increases for completing training or earning advanced degrees. They also get bonuses, including for teaching in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students or schools where students do well on state tests.

Teachers have said the system is confusing and complicated. Because the amount of money they can earn through bonuses can change year to year, teachers say it’s hard for them to predict the size of their paychecks, which makes financial planning difficult.

After spending the past year and a half jointly researching public- and private-sector compensation systems in an attempt to reach common ground on the goals of ProComp, representatives from the district and the union said they agree on some objectives, such as wanting to simplify the system. But they disagree on others.

For instance, district negotiators said they believe ProComp should work to attract and retain great teachers, especially for hard-to-fill positions and in high-needs schools. Union leaders said it should do so for all schools, not just those that are low-performing.

Pay-for-performance systems are relatively rare in public school districts. As for their effectiveness, the research is mixed. Some studies have found that giving teachers bonuses for raising student test scores doesn’t raise scores. Others suggest offering incentives to teachers increases retention. Denver officials acknowledge that while the district has improved on both fronts since ProComp was adopted, it’s difficult to prove ProComp was the reason.

The district first piloted a pay-for-performance system in 1999. Voters in 2005 approved a tax increase to fund it. Three years later, in 2008, the district and the union re-negotiated ProComp and boosted the amount of money teachers could earn under the system.

While the two sides have tweaked the system since then, they have not made major changes. One change the union would like to see is a return to a traditional salary schedule under which teachers get raises based on their education and years of service, with ProComp bonuses awarded on top of that, said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. Currently, the salary schedule is used only to set teachers’ initial base salary.

“We want it to be a simple system that works as icing on the cake, rather than the whole cake,” Kern said of the next iteration of the system, which has been nicknamed “ProComp 3.0.”

Michelle Berge, the district’s deputy general counsel and lead negotiator, said the district would need to see a proposal before it could evaluate that idea. But she noted that “our teachers in the ProComp system are earning more than they would on the traditional salary schedule.”

The district must also be mindful, she said, of the language in the ballot measure voters approved in 2005 to fund ProComp. It lists how the revenue will be used, including to compensate teachers for working in hard-to-fill positions and hard-to-staff schools, and for earning positive teaching evaluations and meeting student learning goals.

Voters initially approved a $25 million tax increase, which was to be adjusted for inflation in future years. This year, the taxes will generate about $35 million, Berge said.

Unlike in other types of contract negotiations, the amount of money isn’t up for discussion. Instead, the two sides will hash out how to spend it.

Colorado law requires school districts and unions to bargain in public. The Denver union took advantage of that openness during this year’s master contract negotiations, which stretched from January to August. Dozens of teachers showed up to bargaining sessions and passionately offered feedback on how certain proposals would affect them and their students. Others followed along as the union live-tweeted and livestreamed the sessions.

In the end, the two sides agreed on a contract that increased teachers’ base salary more than the district originally proposed, but fell short of the union’s most ambitious demands. The base salary this year for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree, before incentives, is $41,689.

The ProComp negotiations will be different in that the two sides have secured a mediator and are trying a method known as interest-based bargaining. Instead of trading proposals back and forth, they started the more collaborative process at their first meeting before Thanksgiving by making a long list of potential issues to discuss. Next, negotiators said they’ll narrow that list to a handful of key issues and then aim to come to consensus on each one.

For instance, Berge said they might analyze whether a single incentive — say, the $2,500 bonus teachers get if their school earns one of the district’s highest ratings — “is still aligned with what we want to do,” or whether there’s a different way to spend that money.

The method has the potential to be less contentious, Kern said. “Traditional bargaining is very much us versus them,” he said. “This is a lot more brainstorming together.”

The current ProComp agreement expires Dec. 31. The two sides have three more negotiation sessions scheduled between now and then, with the next one set for Thursday.

measuring up

After criticism, Denver will change the way it rates elementary schools

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Eva Severance, a first-grader, concentrates on a reading lesson at Lincoln Elementary in Denver.

Facing criticism that its school ratings overstated young students’ reading abilities, the Denver school district announced it will change the way elementary schools are rated next year.

The district will increase the number of students in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade who must score at grade-level on early literacy tests for a school to earn points on the district’s rating scale, and decrease how many points those scores will be worth, officials said.

The changes will lessen the impact of early literacy scores on a school’s overall rating, while also raising the bar on how many students must ace the tests for a school to be considered good. Denver rates schools on a color-coded scale from blue (the highest) to red (the lowest).

“We want to see more students making more progress,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Local civil rights groups, elected officials, educators, and education advocates criticized Denver Public Schools this year for misleading students and families with what they characterized as inflated school ratings based partly on overstated early literacy gains.

“At a time when this country is at war on truth, we have an obligation to Denver families to give them a true picture of their schools’ performance,” state Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, told Boasberg and the school board at a meeting in December.

The groups had asked the district to revise this year’s ratings, which were issued in October. Boasberg refused, saying, “If you’re going to change the rules of the game, it’s certainly advisable to change them before the game starts.” That’s what the district is doing for next year.

The state requires students in kindergarten through third grade to take the early literacy tests as a way to identify for extra help students who are struggling the most to learn to read. Research shows third graders who don’t read proficiently are four times as likely to fail out of high school. In Denver, most schools administer an early literacy test called iStation.

The state also requires students in third through ninth grade to take a literacy test called PARCC, which is more rigorous. Third-graders are the only students who take both tests.

The issue is that many third-graders who scored well on iStation did not score well on PARCC. At Castro Elementary in southwest Denver, for example, 73 percent of third-graders scored at grade-level or above on iStation, but just 17 percent did on PARCC.

Denver’s school ratings system, called the School Performance Framework, or SPF, has always relied heavily on state test scores. But this year, the weight given to the early literacy scores increased from 10 percent to 34 percent of the overall rating because the district added points for how well certain groups, such as students from low-income families, did on the tests.

That added weight, plus the discrepancy between how third-graders scored on PARCC and how they scored on iStation, raised concerns about the validity of the ratings.

At a school board work session earlier this week, Boasberg called those concerns “understandable.” He laid out the district’s two-pronged approach to addressing them, noting that the changes planned for next year are a stop-gap measure until the district can make a more significant change in 2019 that will hopefully minimize the discrepancy between the tests.

Next year, the district will increase the percentage of students who must score at grade-level on the early literacy tests. Currently, fewer than half of an elementary school’s students must score that way for a school to earn points, said Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova. The district hasn’t yet settled on what the number will be for next year, but it will likely be more than 70 percent, she said. The more points a school earns, the higher its color rating.

The district will also reduce the impact the early literacy test scores have on the ratings by cutting in half the number of points schools can earn related to the tests, Cordova said. This makes the stakes a little lower, even as the district sets a higher bar.

The number of points will go back up in 2019 when the district makes a more significant change, officials said. The change has to do with how the tests are scored.

For the past several years, the district has used the “cut points” set by the test vendors to determine which students are reading at grade-level and which are not. But the discrepancy between the third-grade iStation and PARCC reading scores – and the public outcry it sparked – has caused officials to conclude the vendor cut points are too low.

District officials said they have asked the vendors and the state education department to raise the cut points. But even if they agree, that isn’t a simple or quick fix. In the meantime, the district has developed a set of targets it calls “aimlines” that show how high a student must score on the early literacy tests to be on track to score at grade-level on PARCC, which district officials consider the gold standard measure of what students should know.

The aimlines are essentially higher expectations. A student could be judged to be reading at grade-level according to iStation but considered off-track according to the aimlines.

In 2019, the district will use those aimlines instead of the vendor cut points for the purpose of rating schools. Part of the reason the district is waiting until 2019 is to gather another year of test score data to make sure the aimlines are truly predictive, officials said.

However, the district is encouraging schools to start looking at the aimlines this year. It is also telling families how their students are doing when measured against them. Schools sent letters home to families this past week, a step district critics previously said was a good start.

Van Schoales, CEO of the advocacy group A Plus Colorado, has been among the most persistent critics of this year’s elementary school ratings. He said he’s thrilled the district listened to community concerns and is making changes for next year, though he said it still has work to do to make the ratings easier to understand and more helpful to families.

“We know it’s complicated,” he said. “There is no perfect SPF. We just think we can get to a more perfect SPF with conversations between the district and community folks.”

The district announced other changes to the School Performance Framework next year that will affect all schools, not just elementary schools. They include:

  • Not rating schools on measures for which there is only one year of data available.

Denver’s ratings have always been based on two years of data: for instance, how many students of color met expectations on state math tests in 2016 and how many met expectations in 2017.

But if a school doesn’t have data for one of those years, it will no longer be rated on that measure. One way that could happen is if a school has 20 students of color one year but only 12 the next. Schools must have at least 16 students in a category for their scores to count.

The goal, officials said, is to be more fair and accurate. Some schools complained that judging them based on just one year of data wasn’t fully capturing their performance or progress.

  • Applying the “academic gaps indicator” to all schools without exception.

This year, the district applied a new rule that schools with big gaps between less privileged and more privileged students couldn’t earn its two highest color ratings, blue and green. Schools had to be blue or green on a new “academic gaps indicator” to be blue or green overall.

But district officials made an exception for three schools where nearly all students were from low-income families, reasoning it was difficult to measure gaps when there were so few wealthier students. However, Boasberg said that after soliciting feedback from educators, parents, and advocates, “the overwhelming sentiment was that it should apply to all schools,” in part because it was difficult to find a “natural demographic break point” for exceptions.

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.