Jeannie Kaplan is an elected member of the Denver school board. Denver is one of the major sites for corporate reform. Several commenters have asked about Denver’s pay-for-performance plan. I invited Kaplan to explain how it works and with what results, which she does here:

The (D)Evolution of Denver’s Pay-for-Performance Model

This is a story about what happens when a successful “pay for performance” (PFP) education model collides with Broad trained, Gates and Walton funded businessmen in an urban city school landscape. The place is Denver, Colorado. The PFP is called Professional Compensation, ProComp for short. The year of the collision is 2008. But first, some history.

Denver Public Schools was one of the first districts to address the merit pay issue. In 1999 through a collaborative effort between the district and the teachers’ union, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), a two year pilot was put into place. It was based on meeting objectives teachers set with principals. In 2004 a Joint Task Force on Teacher Compensation was formed, leading to a vote by DCTA and the Board of Education in 2005 to ask the voters to approve a special mill levy for teacher merit pay.

In November 2005 such a vote occurred, and the measure passed 58% to 42% . A $25 million fund, adjusted for inflation, was established to be overseen by 3 representatives from DPS , 3 from DCTA, and 2 from the community. The 2005 version of ProComp was NOT a strictly PFP plan; rather it was a hybrid consisting of four components: 1) student growth based on teacher-principal decided objectives, 2) market incentives based on hard-to-serve schools determined by numbers of students receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, English Language Learners and Special Education students and hard-to-staff assignments, such as middle school math, English as a second language SpEd speech and language specialist and school psychologists. 3) knowledge and skills based on completing and implementing professional development units, and 4) professional evaluation based on five revised standards and a body of student work. This plan was a long time coming and was carefully and very collaboratively developed.

As ProComp began to be implemented, a large surplus developed because incentives were not large enough to woo teachers into hard to serve schools, and there were not enough hard to staff positions to spend all the $25 million. Something needed to happen.

2008 – The DCTA contract was up at the end of August 2008; the surplus was big; DPS had just financed and re-financed its pension for $750 million, losing hundreds of millions of dollars due to the timing and method of incurring this new debt. It was a perfect storm for then superintendent now U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and his then chief operating officer and current superintendent Tom Boasberg to demand changes in the voter-approved compensation package.

What happened next changed the original “pay for performance” hybrid methodology to a business-based bonus system. And with this the teaching profession in Denver has fundamentally changed as well. The business guys came in and negotiated as business people often do with employees: they target employees as bad guys defining them as greedy and lazy, while they, the business men, swoop in as “the saviors.” Mr. Bennet, Mr. Boasberg and their team threatened not to renew the DCTA master agreement , thus shutting down the union, and they threatened to go back to Denver’s citizens for another vote voiding the 2005 mill levy increase, thus depriving teachers of any extra compensation. The union negotiators were subjected to bullying, were forced to negotiate well into the night and early in the morning with little sleep. This resulted in a crack within the bargaining team.

DCTA was able to secure 2 minor salary increases that would be available EVERY YEAR to ALL teachers, but its victory was relatively small. And the salary caps were much lower, resulting in professional teachers relying on the once a year business bonus model. Teachers no longer have the financial security of negotiated salary increases because their once a year bonus – distributed in November – vary from year to year, are non-existing some years. Family budgeting becomes difficult. (I can hear business folks saying, “Well, no one is guaranteed a certain amount of money,” as they cash their huge end of the year bonuses. Look people, public education isn’t and shouldn’t be a business. We are talking about the education of ALL children, and we are talking about the adults serving children.) Public education is not a business

And then, of course, there is the pension issue. While bonuses are pensionable, the base salary of teachers does not increase significantly, resulting in lower overall salaries for teachers. With the current system of bonuses and very small salary increases, the amount of many teachers’ monthly pension will most likely go down. And with enough of these smaller pension eligible salaries and with enough teachers ultimately deciding not to teach for as many years, DPS retirement payouts may also decline. Get the picture?

All new DPS must participate in ProComp, yet charter schools, an ever-growing and important component in the DPS “portfolio of schools,” are NOT subject to this pay model. Each charter establishes its own pay scale. This is important to note because Denver now has 40+ charter schools out of over 150 total schools.

So while Denver Public Schools talks about the importance of its three “R’s” – recruiting, rewarding and retaining excellent teachers, the fourth “R”, results of its actions have added to the overall change in the profession. Recruitment is often focusing on short term teachers from programs such as Teach for America, rewarding teachers has been transformed to one time bonuses, and retaining the best is still open for debate. Have some teachers benefitted from what I will call Act II of ProComp? Absolutely. Those in hard-to-serve schools filling hard-to staff positions have seen the most benefits. But for the vast majority of teachers in Denver Public Schools, the change in ProComp has not provided a stable and permanent salary increase, and the initial wishes of Denver’s voters has been significantly altered.

Act I of this PFP experiment showed great promise. Did it need to be tweaked? Yes, but with the history of experimentation and collaboration behind it winning solutions could most probably have been found. Act II has been constructed on a business model centered on competition and bonuses. Has it been successful? Well, the money is being paid out and that is a good thing for sure. But the teaching profession is changing profoundly in Denver. As Act III opens, Denver Public Schools and its PFP prototype will have some new challenges, for Colorado has passed legislation mandating new teacher evaluations, 50% of which is based on student performance. How will that fit in with the already established PFP? Denver anxiously awaits how this will play out.