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Denver teachers strike: What is ProComp (and why does it matter)?

One of the biggest points of contention is over the district's pay-for-performance compensation program.
Credit: KUSA

DENVER — More than 2,600 Denver Public Schools teachers called out of work Monday on day one of the first strike in the district in 25 years, according to the district.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association -- the union -- and the district are at odds over salary contract negotiations. Multiple visits to the bargaining table over the past month have failed, with both sides unable to come to an agreement. 

One of the biggest points of contention is over ProComp, a pay-for-performance compensation system intended to connect teacher pay to their effectiveness, where and in what roles they work and their pursuit of additional knowledge and skills.

At one extreme, ProComp can remain as it is. At the other extreme, the district could do away with it entirely. DCTA and DPS are negotiating somewhere in between.

But what, exactly, is ProComp? 

Allison Atteberry, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's School of Education, talked to 9NEWS about the compensation system and why it's a point of contention between the union and the district.

(Editor's note: This interview has been edited for context and clarity.)

ProComp Fast Facts

  • Started in 2005.
  • A "pay-for-performance" incentive system.
  • Funded by a mill levy tax increase, with a minimum of $25 million in taxes per year.
  • First-of-its-kind in the nation.
  • Other districts have since adopted it.
  • Incentive-based model with 10 different incentives.

9NEWS: What is ProComp?

Atteberry: ProComp is a pay-for-performance DPS compensation system that's intended to add bonuses for teachers on top of base pay. ProComp makes a connection between financial incentives and a teacher's effectiveness based on what and where they teach and professional development activities. The logic is to improve the overall quality of the teacher workforce by attracting and retaining effective teachers -- particularly in high-needs schools -- to get strong teachers in front of kids who really need them. National evidence on whether pay-for-performance systems work as intended is very mixed.  

How does payment under the system work?

It provides financial bonuses for teachers. Teachers have a base salary, and then get bonuses or salary increases for meeting any of the 10 possible incentives. ... That's different than most districts, where all teachers with the same educational degree and level of experience are paid the same. Under ProComp, the bonuses mean that not everyone gets paid the same amount. 

How large are the bonuses?

In 2014, the average total bonus for teachers was $5,800, but varies greatly from teacher to teacher. On average, teachers' bonuses typically fluctuate by $2,500 from year-to-year. In 2014, 90 percent of the ProComp payouts were between $1,950 and $9,800. Almost all [DPS] teachers participate in ProComp, and over 95 percent of eligible teachers received some bonus in 2014.  

What are some of the incentives?

They're either tied to teacher performance or school performance -- or teacher-development activities, like going back to school and getting a degree, or moving to or staying in a high-needs school, or filling a hard-to-serve staff position, like a secondary math teacher. (Click/tap here for a PDF that explains the 10 incentives in full.)

What are some of the complaints teachers have about ProComp?

ProComp is a very complicated system. I don't think the district communicates to teachers well about exactly which incentives they're getting. That can be frustrating. Also, the bonus sizes can be unpredictable, and in some cases it can be based on factors outside the teacher’s control.

Why is it at the center of the negotiations?

Aside from the system being confusing, there are these fluctuations, bonuses are not guaranteed. So there's this uncertainty that teachers live with when it comes to annual pay.

In Denver, it's so expensive to live. ... A [teacher] paycheck that might work in another part of Colorado doesn't work in Denver. This puts teachers in a situation where they're counting every penny... and when you're in this situation with these bonus fluctuations can be painful.

Does it work?

I have done research on whether or not ProComp works. The general teacher's’ perspective seems to be that ProComp doesn't work because many teachers have witnessed a dramatic teacher retention problem decline both in Denver and in Colorado. That is generally true from 2009 to 2015, so they are experiencing a very real problem. Over the last four years, teacher retention has actually stabilized and gone up again in DPS. But just because teacher retention has been falling doesn’t mean that ProComp hasn’t had some positive effects. 

I use data from 2001 to 2016 to look at whether ProComp improved student achievement and whether it did what it was supposed to do, which is attracted and retain stronger teachers at a higher rate than they would have had.

The answer is yes, my quantitative policy analysis suggests that the teacher retention rate among the most effective teachers has fallen more slowly — about half as fast — than for less effective teachers. 

In addition, it appears that ProComp may have also caused an increase in student achievement. There is little evidence that stronger teachers are attracted to DPS or specific schools.  

What do teachers say about ProComp's effectiveness?

My research suggests that there is a positive effect on both student outcomes and differential teacher retention. But that's not what we're hearing from teachers. 

ProComp effects are not huge and are probably concentrated among certain teachers and certain schools. So there are likely teachers out there who don't feel the effects even if they're happening.

Is it realistic to get rid of it?

We can't do away with ProComp. It's probably not on the table at this point because the ballot initiative that provides the money for ProComp requires that compensation is differentiated -- different actions and outcomes for teachers are linked to compensation.

> Click/tap here for more information on ProComp.

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