National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García, who was present in Denver to support the teacher strike, which ended Thursday morning, said this week the protest should serve as a “cautionary tale” for school districts weighing the use of performance incentives and bonuses as a way to increase teacher pay, Chalkbeat reports.
Unlike other teacher strikes, the Denver strike hinged primarily on the way the ProComp merit pay system affects teachers. The system was designed with input from the Denver Classroom Teacher’s Association (DCTA) but without the NEA's support, and Garcia said it became more complex and unpredictable over time, causing discontent and chaos among teachers.
- The system, which was once hailed as a national model, was designed to improve equity issues by attracting teachers to “high priority” schools, but the retention data from these schools showed mixed results.
There is general agreement that many schools face equity issues, which are difficult and take time to eliminate completely. While approaches such as providing wraparound services and creating a growth mindset can help, some educators see increased funding for high-need schools as one of the best solutions to the problem.
But the question becomes how that funding should be used. Should it be spent on better facilities, more technology or lower class sizes? Or should it fund increasing financial incentives to draw better teachers to high-needs schools and retain them? While there was some agreement that the Denver schools plan was flawed, some district leaders touted its effectiveness in drawing and retaining higher-quality teachers.
Denver ProComp's pay system began with a sense of promise and the backing of most stakeholders, including the local teacher union. But critics say the results have been mixed. According to an analysis by Chalkbeat, of the 28 “highest-priority” schools that began consistently offering these incentives to teachers in 2015, nine have improved teacher retention, six have had lower retention rates, and the rest have had inconsistent results. Other bonuses in the system appear to have caused frustration for teachers, because the rules for earning them are confusing and based on elements that are constantly changing and often beyond the ability of teachers to control.
However, others saw it as a step in the right direction. In an article by The 74, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, noted, “For all of ProComp’s faults — chiefly its inability to significantly reward genuinely great teachers, but also an overly complicated structure that doles out bonuses in dribs and drabs — it did move the ball down the field … Yet the Denver teachers union would prefer to sideline the significant advances ProComp did provide, most notably paying educators more money to work in the city’s toughest schools.”
Walsh added, “What most districts never seem to get, but Denver does, is that compensation is an employer’s most important tool for buying what it values…. Unions, on the other hand, would have districts use compensation as the Great Equalizer. They want it to uphold the pretense that all teachers are equally valuable to a district, no matter what they can teach, how well they teach or where they are willing to teach.”
Overall, performance pay systems and bonuses have led to small gains in learning, research says. However, the systems clearly need to be tweaked. RAND Corporation researchers, for example, have suggested that "staff buy-in for bonus requirements, an understanding of the system, and a perception among teachers that the bonus is fair and worth the effort would make pay-for-performance systems more successful."