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ProComp initial findings positive

Harrington Elementary third-graders surround teacher Grace Zirkelbach on the last day of school. Zirkelbach is one of Denver's top earners under the ProComp teacher pay plan.
Harrington Elementary third-graders surround teacher Grace Zirkelbach on the last day of school. Zirkelbach is one of Denver's top earners under the ProComp teacher pay plan.

Maura Sweeney did not come to Denver Public Schools because of its innovative teacher pay plan but, within a couple of years, she was No. 2 on the district’s list of top earners under the Professional Compensation Plan for teachers or ProComp.

Sweeney’s annual pay topped $50,000 by her second year of teaching, thanks partly to the $15,335 she received under one of the nation’s most closely watched experiments in paying teachers differently.

The former apparel designer received $3,297 for having a master’s degree, $2,344 for working in a high-poverty school and $2,403 because her students exceeded expectations on state exams. She and her co-workers at Place Bridge Academy, which serves refugees speaking 42 different languages, also earned $4,806 because the K-8 campus was among DPS’ top performers on its school rating scorecard.

Sweeney earned another $733 for completing a professional development unit, $376 for meeting the two student growth objectives she set at the beginning of the year and $376 for having a satisfactory evaluation. Plus, she received $1,000 in tuition reimbursement for her master’s degree.

“I definitely think I made more in ProComp than I would have in any surrounding district,” said Sweeney, who moved to Denver after teaching for a year in Los Angeles. “In that way, I’m like, ‘Yay, ProComp!’ How could you not be?”

Nearly five years after Denver voters agreed to a $25 million annual tax hike to fund ProComp, one of the first big-district teacher pay plans in the country not based entirely on years of experience and education course credits, it appears to be yielding positive results.

To Learn More:* Click here to see a chart showing the ten components that make up the ProComp system and how much they’re worth.

* Click here to see a spreadsheet detailing ProComp payouts to teachers for their work in 2008-09, the latest available data.

Among the findings of an evaluation prepared by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder:

— Student growth on state reading and math exams was higher after the implementation of ProComp in 2005-06. Researchers used a measure similar to the Colorado Growth Model to analyze DPS test results from 2002-03 through 2008-09. They found all teachers’ median growth percentiles – essentially, how much teachers are moving students – increased about 4 points after ProComp.

— Teachers hired after ProComp appear to outperform those hired before ProComp. Teachers hired after Dec. 31, 2005 are required to join ProComp; it is voluntary for those already employed by DPS. Those hired under ProComp demonstrate higher first-year achievement, between 2 to 4 points in median growth percentiles, and the differences persist through the first three years.

— High-poverty schools with high levels of ProComp participation are seeing fewer teachers leave. Retention rates in schools designated “hard to serve,” which yields a $2,344 annual bonus, are still not as high as retention rates in more affluent schools. But those high-poverty schools where most teachers are in ProComp have seen a sharp increase in retention since 2006-07.

Ed Wiley, chair of research and evaluation methodology at CU-Boulder and the study’s chief researcher, is quick to point out that it’s impossible to draw a straight line from such findings to ProComp alone.

“This is suggestive but it’s not conclusive,” he said, noting recent reforms in addition to ProComp may play into greater student growth and factors such as a tough economy could contribute to higher teacher retention.

State test results show the numbers of DPS students in grades 3 through 10 reading at grade level has increased from 40 percent in 2005 to 47 percent in 2009. In math, proficiency for students in those grades climbed from 29 percent in 2005 to 37 percent in 2009.

“Something is going on that is pretty positive within the district,” Wiley said. “And the fact it has been steeper in the more recent years suggests that what has been doing on recently is having a positive effect.”

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Some teachers benefitting the most from ProComp say it has little changed what they do in the classroom.

Grace Zirkelbach returned to teaching full-time in DPS six years ago at age 50. She waited to join ProComp until two years ago, after carefully checking her earning potential under ProComp vs. the traditional teacher salary schedule.

In 2008-09, the latest available data, she earned $15,028 in ProComp incentives for activities such as working in a high-poverty school and filling a hard-to-staff position – teaching English language learners.

ProComp did not prompt her to make those choices, she said. Rather, it rewarded her for things she was already doing.

For example, Zirkelbach transferred to Harrington Elementary in north Denver not because of the $2,344 annual bonus but because she wanted to work with respected veteran principal Sally Edwards.

She said she was also happy to find a staff working together to complete professional development units, another component of ProComp. That’s been a big improvement over the “filler” classes that she said she was taking to rack up education credits and advance on the traditional salary schedule.

“I really would like to be the best possible teacher I can be teaching third and fourth grades,” Zirkelbach said of her decision to join ProComp. “I have no interest in going into being a principal or going into other areas of academia so just taking a lot of classes for no reason isn’t really what I want to do…

“Really, it’s looking at what’s the best use of my time and where can I make the best money over the next ten years that I’ll be working.”

Teacher attitude surveys about ProComp seem to support the view that the pay plan is more likely to reward than to motivate.

Nearly 2,000 ProComp teachers participated in a May 2009 survey in which they were asked to agree or disagree with statements about the influence of the pay plan.

Fewer than 20 percent said ProComp has led them to change the content they teach and only about 30 percent agreed it has changed the way they teach. More respondents, though still less than half, agreed ProComp has “focus(ed) my teaching more on raising student achievement.”

Finally, only 42 percent agreed “the financial incentives in ProComp will lead to improved instructional practice.”

About half of those surveyed had voluntarily joined ProComp while the other half were required to join because they were hired in 2006 or later. There were only slight differences in their responses.

Allyson McGraw, who just wrapped up her fourth year of teaching in DPS and her fourth year in ProComp, said her own desire to be a better teacher is her chief motivator. But ProComp helps.

“When I first started teaching, I didn’t necessarily know what it was,” said McGraw, who moved from New York to join DPS. “I just kind of went with it. It became second nature to want to track my growth and to set goals for my students and myself.”

McGraw was automatically entered into ProComp in fall 2005 after being hired at Bruce Randolph School in north Denver. As part of an intense reform effort, Randolph was a schoolwide ProComp pilot for three years.

In 2008, McGraw had to decide whether to join on her own. She did and, in 2008-09, earned $15,086 in ProComp incentives for her work teaching language arts to 7th-graders.

“I’m motivated enough to want to be better at my craft and I seek out those answers or my colleagues to help me with that,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with ProComp necessarily …

“But at the same time, I love where I am and I love the kids and then I get an incentive for it. It’s like the icing on the cake.”

Joining ProComp is a harder decision for some other teachers, such as Kim Ursetta, the former teachers’ union president who successfully lobbied voters to support funding for the pay plan.

Ursetta, who has taught in DPS for 16 years, has one more year to opt in. After that, time’s up.

Two-thirds of Denver’s 4,500 teachers are part of ProComp – a third joined voluntarily and a third were required to join when hired. The final third include about 400 teachers not eligible to join ProComp, such as those in charter schools, and about 1,000 teachers who are eligible to join but who have yet to do so. They have until June 30, 2011 to make up their minds.

In 2008-09, DPS distributed $19.2 million in ProComp incentives to 3,143 teachers. The average payout per teacher was $6,120.

Ursetta, who works in a high-poverty school and teaches in Spanish, would likely qualify for at least $4,500 in bonuses right away.

“Of course the money’s nice, no one wants to turn down money, especially in these economic times,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s the sole factor that’s going to help improve education.

“I don’t believe that dangling a carrot out there is what’s going to make performance improve. I think there are a lot of other factors that will help,” Ursetta added, citing examples such as improved leadership and more resources in struggling schools.

Like Ursetta, Henry Roman, the current president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, worked to win ProComp’s approval by teachers in 2004 and by voters in 2005.

Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, is critical of changes to ProComp in 2008 that make it less beneficial for more experienced teachers.
Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, is critical of changes to ProComp in 2008 that make it less beneficial for more experienced teachers.

Then in 2008, both unsuccessfully fought changes to the plan that they believe have weakened its intent.

That’s when DPS leaders proposed shifting some incentives from salary base-building, meaning the money earned adds up every year, to annual bonuses, which do not. And some components turn from base-building to bonuses after a teacher hits the 13-year mark.

Of that average $6,120 pay per ProComp teacher in 2008-09, $4,780 was annual bonuses and $1,339 was salary base-building.

DPS’ stated intent was to push more money into the paychecks of teachers earlier in their careers. But Roman, who joined ProComp last year, said it hurts veterans who may not be eligible for, or earn, all of the bonuses.

“As it’s set up right now, I think it creates some winners and some losers,” he said. “And the winners would be first-year teachers entering the profession, probably between the years first five to seven, eight years. And the losers would be those at year 10 and higher, depending on how well they’re doing.”

Teachers who opted into ProComp before 2008 were given the chance to opt out after the changes were announced; 43 did so.

ProComp is up for revision in 2011, as talks between the union and district re-open every three years.

By then, Wiley will have completed part 2 of his look at ProComp and a separate evaluation by CU-Denver researchers is due. Paul Teske, who is overseeing the CU-Denver evaluation in his role as the university’s Dean of the School of Public Affairs, said neither study may definitively link ProComp to student gains.

“That’s sort of the $64,000 question that people around the country want to see the answer to,” he said. “But my caution – there’s a trillion other things that affect student achievement … you rarely have good enough data to figure it out perfectly.”

ProComp and other alternative teacher pay plans continue to spark national interest. On May 20, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the quadrupling of federal grant dollars – up to $437 million – available for such plans through the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helped seed ProComp. Brad Jupp, the former DPS union leader who helped create ProComp, now works with Duncan on teacher quality issues.

Those who study performance pay admit “in terms of the research around performance pay, it’s pretty slender,” said Susan Burns, program manager for the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. Her center later this month is poised to release the first of its two “rigorous” studies on the link between teacher incentives and student achievement.

But if evidence is – so far – only preliminary about ProComp, there is equally little proof that teacher pay is better tied to years of experience and education credits. Teske said studies have shown teachers with master’s degrees don’t outperform their peers while “most teachers get as good as they’re going to get after five or six years.”

Few DPS teachers appear to believe the traditional salary schedule will improve student learning. When asked by CU researchers, only one in four teachers who are not in ProComp agreed the traditional schedule “will lead to improved instructional practices.” Fewer than 20 percent of those in ProComp agreed with the statement.

Rebecca Castellanos, who teaches English language learners at a high-poverty school in southwest Denver, said preference in pay plans may come down to individual personality.

“I work well within this incentive-based system,” she said. “I use data a lot and I work hard. So it’s very motivating for me.”

Castellanos earned $14,383 in ProComp incentives in 2008-09, her third year of teaching. She was required to join the pay system when she was hired and was “a little nervous” about how it worked. But as she earned incentives for exceeding expectations on state exams, for example, she said she pushed herself to do better the next year.

Now, “I feel like I have more control over my salary,” she said. “It’s definitely pushed me to become a better teacher.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at or 303-478-4573.

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