Paid on a curve

Hard work will be rewarded. Bright young teachers will be empowered. Hanging on to a job for years will no longer be the fastest way to advance up the pay scale.

Such were the optimistic assessments of the vote taken earlier this month in Denver, when schoolteachers there broke rank with national teachers' unions to approve one of the nation's first compensation packages linking their pay to student performance - a concept the public may love, but teachers' unions have generally resisted.

Of course the decision is not without controversy. Even some who embrace pay for performance criticize this plan for not going far enough. But there are others who predict that Denver's ability to get its teachers on board will spur other school districts nationwide to move in the same direction.

"It's an invitation to policymakers to point their fingers at their own teachers' unions," says Michael Allen, a program manager on teacher issues for the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "It's a wedge."

In a close vote, Denver teachers approved a compensation plan that would phase out the old pay scale, in which salaries were based on teachers' education and experience. It will be replaced with one that combines a base salary and cost-of-living increases with financial rewards for meeting certain goals, including student-performance objectives.

Under the new plan, which must be approved - and funded - by Denver voters, teachers would receive a set-percentage pay increase for completing an additional degree, or becoming nationally certified, for working in a poorly performing school, or for exceeding expectations on statewide tests.

The size of the incentives varies. A teacher who holds a national license would receive a 9 percent pay increase. For a starting teacher earning the district's base pay of $32,971, that translates to $2,967 over a year. A teacher who also taught at a "hard to serve" school would get an additional 3 percent increase, or $989.

But the plan's most controversial aspect links teacher pay to student performance. Teachers whose students beat expectations on the Colorado Student Achievement Test will also receive a 3 percent pay increase. They are eligible for another 1 percent increase - $330 a year - for meeting agreed-upon "student growth" objectives.

The district's 4,500 current teachers would have the option to stay under the old pay scale or join the new plan, known as ProComp, but all teachers hired after 2006 would be paid under the new plan - if, that is, the proposal passes the next hurdle: voters.

The package would be financed by an increase in property taxes to raise $25 million. The increase would cost the average homeowner about $61 a year, says Peggy Gonder, a spokeswoman for the task force that developed the plan. It will be put to voters in November 2005 - with enthusiastic support from Denver's mayor, its school board, and the teachers' union.

But this unanimity was a long time coming.

"Five years ago, the Board of Education wanted to move to compensation based on student achievement, and the union said no," says Becky Wissink, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, who bucked the national union to support the plan.

Ms. Wissink, a bilingual-education teacher, painted a picture of Denver teachers capitulating to a political reality that wasn't going away, rather than welcoming the shift wholeheartedly. "We realized we had to figure out what we could do about this debate," she says.

Besides, the union began to see opportunities. "If this is the way to get more money in teachers' pockets, that's a good thing," Ms. Wissink says.

In that sentiment, at least, Wissink has the backing of the National Education Association, but it doesn't support paying teachers for students' performance.

"To link an individual teacher's pay with a student's performance over a year does not make sense to the average person," says Carolyn York, manager for collective bargaining and compensation for the NEA.

"They recognize a whole variety of factors [such as home environment] go into student success. You want to make sure what you are measuring is something teachers have control over."

That's traditionally been the position of the unions, but it's one that has come under fire from many experts, who say union inflexibility is thwarting student achievement.

It's tremendously petulant and naive to imagine that teachers are uniquely subject to factors beyond their control, says Frederick Hess, director of education studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Hess points to other professions, from the law to engineering to business, where pay rises and falls according to the fortunes of the whole firm.

"If you believe that most folks will do better when rewarded and the size of the reward matters, that's all there is to it," he says.

But there is also the question - troubling to some educators and parents alike - as to whether linking salaries to test scores might not tempt teachers to "teach to the test" rather than to offer the richest curriculum possible.

Yet even some who support the idea that motivating teachers to raise test scores will improve teaching question whether the incentives in the Denver package are enough to change teacher behavior significantly - for better or worse.

For example, says Hess - who supports the concept of merit pay but not the Denver plan - a teacher who works in a pleasant school that is already doing well is unlikely to move to a troubled school for a pay increase of only $1,000 a year.

Jerry Wartgow, superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, agrees that the incentives are relatively small, but they accumulate over time: As pay increases, so do the rewards.

Evidence suggests that to persuade good teachers to move from good schools to troubled schools takes an incentive of at least $5,000 a year, says Mr. Allen of the Education Commission of the States.

There is no similar evidence about linking teacher pay to student performance because it has not been attempted much until now, Allen says. He suspects it would take more than the incentives offered under the Denver package to make a big difference.

Nonetheless, Allen says, the passage of the plan in Denver may galvanize school districts across the nation to try to get their unions to compromise, he says.

After all, in Denver, the proposal garnered support of 59 percent of the 2,700 teachers who voted, when many in education thought it was impossible to get teachers to agree to merit pay.

"It was not any closer than the vote on our last contract," Wissink says.

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