Merit pay revisited- Is Denver’s pay for performance a model plan?

Although it remains a controversial issue, merit pay has long since evolved from the days when test scores were the single factor in determining whether a teacher would get paid for performance.  Nowadays a number of school districts across the country have developed multi-pronged plans aimed at equitably rewarding teachers for their accomplishments.  Nonetheless, the question still remains: Is there actually a way to fairly reward a professional who deals with the advancement of human capital?  No plan is perfect, but one district might have come close.

In 2009, The Center took a look at merit pay and made mention of Denver’s ProComp Pay for Performance plan.  Now, a three year study, conducted by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch of the Center for Education Data and Research, has come out.  The study was conducted between the fall of 2006 and spring of 2010 on Denver’s ProComp plan. Denver Public Schools (DPS) requires all teachers who were hired in 2006 or later to be a part of the ProComp plan and gives veteran teachers the choice whether to opt in or not.  ProComp offers teachers four opportunities to receive bonuses, which include:

  1. Knowledge and Skills: Teachers may earn pay for completing one professional development unit per year (and can bank extra PDU’s), getting advanced  degrees and licenses, and can even receive tuition and student loan reimbursement (50 to 65 percent received this pay)
  2. Comprehensive Professional Evaluation: Based on principal evaluations, which are every 1 to 3 years (5 to 14 percent received this pay)
  3. Market Incentives: Aimed at teachers who work in hard-to-serve schools and/0r in hard-to-staff subject areas, as reviewed by school demographics and market supply (35 to 65 percent received this pay)
  4. Student Growth: Teachers set up student growth objectives, based on what they expect students to learn, which are approved by the principal (example: I expect x number of students to  exceed expectations in Reading on the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).) (70 to 80 percent received this pay)

The study suggests that the ProComp plan made teachers feel more supported and in turn, allowed them to more consistently meet their goals (Robles 2011).  In fact, between 2006 and 2010, 15 percent of the non-ProComp teachers even switched over to join the plan after seeing the positive results ProComp had on their schools and colleagues.  Not only has ProComp made the teaching profession more attractive, Goldhaber and Walch conclude that:

  • There were significant learning gains across grades and subjects;
  • The benefits of tracking data and evaluating educators spread from ProComp teachers to the entire district;
  • There was an expectation that the program would cause a negative atmosphere between team members but the opposite actually occurred and role models were bred;
  • ProComp teachers’ students had larger than expected gains on the state assessment.

Skeptics argue that these rewards focus more on classroom instruction than student test achievement and that ProComp is inconsistent with the value-added approach. Goldhaber and Walch point out that, “whether this is good or bad is clearly a normative question” but that “overall, ProComp has had a positive effect.”  They also suggest that states might want to consider investing in similar programs, especially for their Race to the Top objectives. Yesenia Robles of the Denver Post notes that ProComp has helped propel infrastructure reforms to change recruitment practices and enhance methods of data gathering.  She goes on to point out that the difference between non-ProComp and ProComp teachers’ student growth objectives are comparable to the difference between a first and second year teacher’s.   Her article, DPS Teacher-Pay System Likely Boosting Student Achievement, Study Finds, also points out that Denver Public Schools has retained 160 more teachers per year since 2006 and that 80 percent of all DPS teachers currently participate in the program.   Robles notes that, “The ProComp system is already in the process of changing with the implementation of the district’s evaluation-and-support system, known as LEAP, now being tested in 94 percent of DPS schools.”  Right now it is still too early to tell if ProComp can survive these alterations. 

ProComp is an even-handed, well-formed pay for performance plan that other districts can use as a model and will hopefully emulate.  The research shows that ProComp was not only received well by DPS teachers but most significantly, student success consistently progressed. –M. Newport

(To see whether similar pay for performance plans have been successful, check out this ECS report.)

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