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A Promising Accord for Denver’s ProComp Program

SOURCE: AP/David Zalubowski

Valeri Kershaw, a literacy teacher at Bruce Randolph Middle School in northeast Denver, works with 12-year-old Jessica Rodriguez during class. Denver's school district and unions have reached an agreement on the city's model teacher compensation system, ProComp.

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Two weeks ago, Denver teachers and education officials demonstrated once again that they could work through tough issues as they reached agreement on a new contract that would refine Denver’s path-breaking teacher compensation system.

Designing the teacher pay system we need “is not an event. It is a work in progress that must be adjusted and refined as experience with the system grows,” explains Joan Snowden, author of the “Future of Teacher Compensation,” a report produced by the Center for American Progress. The Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association provide an important illustration of this point. They reached a new contract agreement after a couple of months of a tense stalemate over the provisions of Denver’s teacher compensation system, the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp. The agreement is expected to be approved by teachers by September 9.

This contract agreement demonstrates that a district and union can collaborate and design programs that both reward teachers for their important work while keeping student learning front and center in the process. The stakes of reaching a compromise were high. ProComp has received national attention as a model teacher pay reform program developed jointly by a district and teachers union. Since its inception as a pilot program in 1999, other districts have followed suit in working collaboratively with their unions to develop compensation systems. If negotiations had failed, it could have discouraged other potential efforts.

The stakes for Denver students were most important. This innovative program has been able to attract talented teaching candidates to the district and motivate and retain experienced teachers. Evaluation of the program is ongoing, but the district’s gains on the Colorado assessment already suggest that the program is succeeding. Reading and mathematics scores between 2007 and 2008 have increased in almost every grade level.

The ProComp program is unique in its design. There are a variety of ways teachers can earn additional pay through ProComp, including participating in professional development, receiving satisfactory evaluations, achieving objectives that the teachers set for their students with approval from their principals, teaching in hard-to-staff schools or subjects, and increasing student achievement. It is an innovative approach that is supported by teachers, and it will need to be evaluated and continually modified based on evaluation findings.

The contract agreement keeps the basic program in tact, but makes some promising modifications. These include a 3 percent pay raise for all teachers; an increase in starting teachers’ salaries from $35,000 to $42,000; increases in annual bonuses for teachers teaching in hard-to-staff subjects and schools from $1,067 to $2,345; and a new financial incentive for all teachers in the 50 percent of schools with the greatest achievement growth. In addition, veteran teachers’ raises would be capped after 13 years of service.

These provisions are important changes for Denver’s teachers. Higher salaries are clearly needed to attract the most talented candidates to the profession. And the increases in bonuses are needed to attract teachers to the schools and subjects where they are most needed. While there isn’t a great deal of research on these types of incentives, there is limited evidence that these are promising strategies. A teacher compensation program in North Carolina that rewarded bonuses for teachers in subject-shortage areas and high-poverty schools found that the program reduced teacher turnover. A study by researchers at Rand similarly found that higher pay lowered attrition, and the effect was stronger in high-needs school districts—every $1,000 increase was estimated to decrease attrition by over 6 percent.

Other important provisions in the new Denver contract include additional responsibilities for principals and teachers to collaborate in making school-level decisions, more time for planning and professional development for teachers, and a new Professional Standards Work Group that will address peer evaluation, improving teacher mentoring, and other professional practices. These are all provisions that have the potential to strengthen the Denver teaching profession, making it a more attractive place to teach for new teachers and improving the practice of veteran teachers.

There clearly is no one magic formula for designing a successful teacher compensation, training, and support program. We need lots of experimentation with these policies throughout the country. We need programs like ProComp in Denver to try out innovative strategies and evaluate them to figure out what works. Innovation always requires some risk and adjustment, and it is therefore important that the district and union were able to take risks, make some compromises, and come out with something that many think will work better for Denver’s students and teachers.

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