Change pay, change teaching?
One thing holding the teaching profession back is its vastly outdated pay system, say proponents of new compensation plans.
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"There needs to be a connection between what [Denver is] doing and increased student achievement," says Phil Gonring, a program officer at the Rose Community Foundation in Denver who was heavily involved in ProComp's inception.Skip to next paragraph
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Advocates of plans like ProComp see a couple of ways that such systems could lead to improved student achievement. One way is if the extra pay becomes an incentive for existing teachers to improve. Such improvement could happen because these programs usually provide more professional-development opportunities, as well as more tools to analyze performance.
Another possibility: The change in pay structure attracts and retains better-qualified people who might not otherwise enter teaching.
"Teachers are going to get paid a lot more under these performance-pay plans," Mr. Gonring says. "What we'll see is a transformation in the labor market. It's going to become more economically viable for young people to come into the profession and stay for a good period of time. The No. 1 education issue is human capital management. And money plays a huge role in getting people to stay."
Still, many teachers and unions hang on to a gut reaction against anything that ties their pay to standardized test scores. (See story on linking test scores.)
In addition, none of these pay programs answers the question of what to do with underperforming teachers, who are usually protected by tenure. "I guess your salary stays low, and maybe that sends the message that you should look at another career," says Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Denver. "But ProComp doesn't directly address that," says Mr. Teske, who is conducting the external review of Denver's program. [Editor's note: The original version contained an incorrect title for Teske.]
Among the questions that administrators and researchers are trying to sort through:
•What amount of money makes a difference to teachers?
•Should more money go toward group bonuses (to teachers at an entire school, for instance) or be available for individual teachers?
•Which works better: salary increases or yearly bonuses?
•And most important, if the goal is to reward the best teachers, is there a fair way to determine who the best teachers are?
Denver's approach to these questions resulted in a complicated system with more than 10 categories that can affect salary.
"ProComp remains something you can fault for being overly complex, but as you're trying to win over the hearts and minds of teachers, you err on the side of complexity," says Brad Jupp, a senior academic policy adviser in Denver's district. He was previously a union representative who helped design the program.
One of the most striking aspects of Denver's system, in fact, is that it was done with the full support of the local teachers union – a sharp contrast to districts like Washington, D.C., where efforts to push a new pay program, among other reforms, have antagonized the union.
Denver teachers initially opposed
Back in 2004, when the Denver teachers union voted on ProComp, many teachers had a deeply ingrained opposition to "merit pay." One poll about a month before the vote showed that just 19 percent of them were in favor. The district undertook a public-relations blitz and massive information campaign, and it ended up winning the support of 59 percent of teachers.
That backing, say Mr. Jupp and others – along with the fact that the union was involved in designing the program – has been crucial to its success.
Pioneering salary plans
Most districts experimenting with new pay structures for teachers have opted for basing rewards on a wide variety of factors. Here are some of the most common:
•Hard-to-serve schools: Schools with a high level of low-income or low-achieving students often have difficulty attracting and keeping teachers, so some districts offer better salaries at these schools as an incentive.
•Hard-to-staff positions: Some districts also offer better salaries in subject areas that have a teacher shortage, such as math and science.
•Additional responsibilities: In some schools, experienced teachers are rewarded for mentoring new teachers or becoming "master teachers" who help improve instruction beyond their own classrooms.
•Key skills: Instead of automatically giving extra pay for advanced degrees, some districts are more selective and reward knowledge and skills that are related to district goals, such as certification in bilingual education.
•Performance: "Performance pay" or "merit pay" are often used as umbrella terms for all the factors above. But more narrowly, they also can refer to salaries or bonuses tied specifically to teachers producing strong gains in student achievement, based on standardized tests or some other measure that's deemed objective.