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Research Strongly Suggests Denver ProComp Success, Room to Improve

Yesterday Denver-based and national researchers released the big evaluation of Denver’s ProComp teacher incentive pay program, often considered the centerpiece of an array of structural reforms in Colorado’s second largest school district. If you want the soundbite summary of the work by the University of Colorado Denver and the Center for Education Data and Research, Ed News Colorado’s report nearly nails it:

Student achievement is up and teacher turnover is down since Denver Public Schools implemented its merit pay plan for teachers in 2006, but it’s tough to prove a direct link between the two.

In other words, ProComp (not best understood as “merit pay”) almost certainly is having a positive impact on student results in classrooms across Denver, though real world conditions make it very difficult to pin down the effects of one element when many reforms are taking place. My Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow summarized similar observations made from a 2010 ProComp evaluation in his issue paper Pioneering Teacher Compensation Reform.

Of course, there’s not a magical direct line between having a system like ProComp in place and better student test results. Evaluators observed some improvements in instructional practices, and as was noted in the Ed News Colorado story, more effective teachers hired and retained:

[DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg] ticked off gains in student achievement, in teacher retention and in student enrollment, which surpassed the 80,000-mark this year for the first time since 1974.

“Many factors go into that … but clearly ProComp is a very important part,” Boasberg said, noting, “One example, for every open teaching position, we see five times more applicants than we saw when Denver voters made the investment in ProComp six years ago.”

Encouraging developments, to be sure. But tagging on to another finding in the latest evaluation, might I suggest an upgrade to ProComp — either now or in 2013, when it’s set to be renegotiated or else expire? Shift most or all of the funds used to reward “Knowledge and Skills” rewards for advanced degrees and certifications into student growth and other incentives.

Evaluators declared: “Teachers liked receiving these incentives, but there is limited evidence that they led to changes in instructional practice or improved student CSAP achievement.” The research blowout on the ineffectiveness of “master’s bumps”? Let’s just say the ProComp evaluators might get accused of piling on the score.

Not that there aren’t some true believers in a record-setting comeback against all odds. As Ed News Colorado reports about the leading Denver teachers union official:

[DCTA president Henry Roman] also expressed concerns about the finding that there’s “limited evidence” of a link between advanced degrees and improved student achievement.

“Just like when you’re trying to jump start the economy, you don’t see results in three months or six months,” Roman said. “Sometimes you see the results a year later or two years later.”

Really? The optimism is admirable. But if your football team is down 35-0 midway through the 4th quarter, you’ve got to figure out how to score something first. ProComp appears to be working well, but Denver has the opportunity to fine-tune the pay system to make it stronger.