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Does Denver's Teacher Pay Plan Go Far Enough?

by Gary Gordon, EdD
Global Practice Leader, Education Division

First in a two-part series on the proposed teacher salary plan for Denver Public Schools

Education reform advocates nationwide will be keeping an eye on the Denver Public Schools over the next few years as the system implements a new salary structure for teachers that breaks from the single-salary plan that has been the standard for decades in most of America's public schools. The new plan is an important step toward a system that recognizes the true worth of each teacher -- but does it go far enough?

There's no question that most Americans support higher pay for teachers. According to the 2003 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools*, 59% of Americans think that teachers' salaries in their communities are too low. Sixty-five percent feel that higher salaries should be provided to teachers in schools needing improvement. Moreover, Americans identify "lack of financial support/funding/money" as the biggest problem facing their community schools.

Denver's proposed new compensation program is an effort to address teacher salary issues. Last month, the Denver Classroom Teachers' Association (DCTA) approved the new salary structure, called the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, setting up an opportunity for Denver voters to approve additional funds for the proposal.

But although some observers have defined the program as "merit pay" for Denver teachers, ProComp is actually a more moderate step away from the single-salary plan. Through decades of workplace research, Gallup has found that workers in every field, including teaching, perform better when they are rewarded for outstanding performance. ProComp marks progress toward that end, but it still doesn't place enough emphasis on outcomes -- the positive impact that teachers have on students' lives.

The Specifics of ProComp

Under the predominant single-salary plan used in most districts, teachers with similar numbers of university credits and years in the classroom receive the same salaries. Often criticized by citizens and school board members, the single-salary concept fails to provide pay differentiation based on teachers' classroom performance or market-driven factors, such as scarcity. For example, special education teachers, who are relatively hard to find, are paid the same as other teachers in more abundant supply. Perhaps more importantly, there's no room for the most effective teachers -- those who play the biggest roles in elevating test scores and positively affecting students' lives -- to be recognized with higher pay than mediocre teachers.

ProComp provides additions to teachers' base salaries based on four areas: knowledge and skills, professional evaluations, market incentives, and student growth. A look at the first area -- knowledge and skills -- shows how ProComp is an improvement over the single-salary plan, but still not a perfect solution. (The other three areas will be discussed next week in the second part of this article.)

Knowledge and Skills

The predominant feature of the Denver salary plan, compensation for additional knowledge and skills, accounts for 57% of ProComp's money, according to the Joint Task Force for Teacher Compensation. Teachers will be granted salary increases for completing approved courses related to teaching proficiency, research projects, graduate degrees, and national board certification.

Progress: The difference between ProComp and other teacher salary programs is that ProComp will require teachers to actually demonstrate knowledge from their additional coursework when they are in the classroom with their students. This will help prevent teachers from taking "nice to know" courses that increase their salaries but provide little benefit in the classroom -- e.g., a math teacher sitting through a two-day course on Kansas City history and then never using that knowledge to help his students. Taking a more forceful stance than most school districts, Denver hopes to concentrate teachers' educational resources on what actually contributes to their students' learning.

Challenges: From a talent perspective, Denver's approach still puts too much emphasis on what teachers know -- that is, additional degrees equal more money. Gallup research demonstrates that teaching effectiveness has as much more to do with innate characteristics such as the ability to form positive bonds with students, identify the type of instruction each student will be most responsive to, and tailor the learning process accordingly (see "Talent vs. Training: Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers" in Related Items).

Clearly, it's important to provide teachers with incentives to continually expand their knowledge base. But ProComp suffers to some extent from the same flaw as the single-salary plan: Teacher talent, and the dramatic student outcomes that spring from it, is underrecognized.

Next week's conclusion will discuss the remaining provision areas in the ProComp plan: professional evaluation, market incentives, and student growth.

*The findings of the survey are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,011 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted from May 28 to June 18, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

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