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ProComp's Downgrade

By Benjamin DeGrow

Many interested observers around the nation are awaiting the fate of a new Denver teacher pay proposal. Some want to see how teachers will be affected. But consideration also ought to be given to the city’s students and taxpayers, who have much to gain or lose as well.

On November 1, Denver voters will decide whether to give Denver Public Schools (DPS) an additional $25 million a year to finance the Professional Compensation System for Teachers (better known as ProComp). Before signing the check, they need a better idea of what the plan stands to deliver.

DPS leaders deserve praise for pursuing the vision of alternative teacher compensation. The current salary model, used by nearly all school districts, is outdated. It does not distinguish between teaching physics or physical education. Nor does it offer teachers any incentive to exceed, or even meet, basic expectations. Instead, pay automatically increases based on how many years a teacher has worked and the number of courses he has taken after college.

The only sure outcome of ProComp seems to be that DPS teachers will have the chance to make more money, even if they don’t improve student test scores. The plan may be a small step in the right direction, but the price tag for its lopsided and incomplete configuration is steep.

ProComp’s designers did not steer it far enough away from the current salary model. They created a system of incentives that places too much emphasis on areas that don’t necessarily help students achieve more.

The most promising piece of ProComp rewards teachers who set and meet goals for improving student performance. A comprehensive study of the ProComp pilot program showed that teachers who set better-defined, higher-quality objectives tend to generate more improvement among their pupils. After all, if you know where you are going, the more likely you are to get there.

Under ProComp, though, a hard-working teacher who sets and meets two high objectives would receive only a $333 raise. If her class does better than expected on the CSAP, she would take home an extra $999. Making a measurable difference in students’ lives would yield modest rewards.

But the plan’s largest prize goes to teachers who endure the process and paperwork of earning National Board certification. Expert Dr. Frederick Hess, President of the American Enterprise Institute, says the evidence shows the certification makes little or no difference in boosting student achievement. Why then raise a teacher’s salary by nearly $3,000 a year to earn National Board certification?

Another piece of ProComp aims in the right direction but likely won’t accomplish much. A good idea is the annual bonus available to qualified teachers who serve at poorer schools or who fill positions with shortages of available talent. Yet at roughly $1,000 each year, the bonus does not figure to bring in enough skilled instructors to fill the gaps.

Studies indicate a much bigger pay differential is needed to draw talented teachers away from familiar surroundings into challenging environments. Typically, skilled veterans take the easier assignments, leaving the hard work to inexperienced instructors. This trend is one reason why the economic and racial achievement gaps persist.

Some teachers have said they are worried the district might use the funds collected for unintended purposes. But non-union teachers and taxpayers alike should be at least as wary of the local teachers union. The union will choose three of the eight board members to oversee the ProComp money and will have veto authority over two other members.

ProComp deserves one more key criticism, and that’s for what it doesn’t do: get rid of teachers who aren’t up to the task. Consider a tenured teacher who receives a poor evaluation and does not improve after given help and a second chance. Not only is her job as secure as ever, but under ProComp she could conceivably still get a raise!

Performance pay incentives go hand in hand with the effective authority to fire problem teachers. If well-designed and fairly implemented, they can work together to make a real difference. But ProComp falls short on both counts. The plan’s carrots are the wrong sizes in the wrong places, and its stick is virtually nonexistent.

ProComp is an admirable attempt to abandon the tired and inefficient status quo of how teachers are paid. But the cost for the current design might leave Denver’s students and taxpayers with buyers’ remorse.

Ben DeGrow is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center.