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Denver Teachers Strike and National Dispute Over Tough-School Bonuses
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Denver Teachers Strike and National Dispute Over Tough-School Bonuses

The biggest single reason that members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union overwhelmingly voted to strike against Denver Public Schools is pay. But another major disagreement contributing to the possibility of a walkout within days involves the size of bonuses teachers should receive for working in high-poverty schools. And many parents and observers will likely be surprised to learn that the union is calling for smaller rewards and the district wants to give more.

This seeming paradox is emblematic of a nationwide education debate over ProComp, the compensation approach currently used by Denver Public Schools, says Kate Walsh, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality. The council hasn't formally taken sides in the Denver negotiations, and Walsh stresses that she's got a history of supporting educators in areas where they're grossly underpaid. But when it comes to ProComp policies intended to monetarily boost teachers who choose to teach in the most challenging schools, she's firmly in DPS's corner.

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As she puts it, "If the district concedes on this point, it would really be a step backward."

The ProComp page on the DPS website notes that Denver voters approved funding for what's described as a "performance-based teacher compensation system" in 2005, with the district and the union working together to create "the new national standard for supporting, incentivizing and recognizing teacher excellence." The list of ingredients for the ProComp philosophy includes "best practices in teaching and learning," "tools and data for measuring student growth," "knowledgeable and motivated professional staff" and "evaluation of teaching practices."

Here's a DPS video about ProComp:

Prior to ProComp, Walsh says, "all districts in the country tended to pay teachers the same way. They gave them small raises each year based on their number of years in the classroom and gave them bigger raises if they earned more graduate credits."

In her view, "that's a really anachronistic system. It doesn't reward people for doing more difficult teaching jobs or for taking teaching jobs that are in scarce supply, and it doesn't reward teachers who are superstars. ProComp set out to change that."

Walsh argues that "compensation is an employer's best tool, the most powerful tool they have for buying what the employer values. I do that in my organization, and everyone else I know does that — they use salaries and benefits to attract the people they want. But you can't do that in public education, because the unions are the great equalizer. Unions think of teacher pay as a way to affirm that all teachers are equally valuable."

To her, "That's nonsense. If you have children, you know that there were some teachers who knocked it out of the park, and if you lost them, you'd be bereft. And there are also teachers willing to work in the toughest neighborhoods in Denver and many teachers who won't. So you'd think we'd want to incentivize teachers to work in those neighborhoods."

She concedes that "ProComp was never perfect. It was just better than awful. It didn't really figure out a way to reward superstar teachers — but what it did do was provided bonuses to teachers who would work in really tough schools. And that's what the district wants to do now. They want to pay $2,500 annually to teachers who will work in the seventy high-poverty schools in the district and another $2,500 to the teachers who will work in the poorest thirty schools."

Susana Cordova is the recently named superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is the recently named superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat

She characterizes these amounts as "modest bonuses that would probably give some people incentive to work in those schools. If you pay those teachers the same as to work in Cherry Hills, they have no incentive. So you want to use that money to drive those teachers to the tougher jobs."

In contrast, the union suggests a $1,500 bonus, with the difference to be redistributed to pay for all teachers. Walsh sees that as ineffective.

"I don't know about you, but that wouldn't persuade me to do anything for 280 days a year," she says. "You're working twice as hard at those schools. The school district would be better off saying there's no bonus rather than giving $1,500 to work in those schools. In Washington, D.C., they pay their teachers an extra $20,000 per year to go to work in really tough schools, so $2,500 isn't giving away the store."

She feels that redistributing the extra money sends a pleasant but inaccurate message: "If we treat teachers all as equally valuable, it's a fairy tale."

In 2017, the National Council on Teacher Quality named DPS a "great district for great teachers" — a distinction shared with just seven other districts across the country. The reason the district received the accolade "is because of the way they were thinking about how to compensate teachers," Walsh maintains. "They don't do it perfectly. I don't think they do enough to reward excellent teachers. But they do a lot of other things well, and one of them is bonuses for teachers who work in high-needs schools. Places like Washington, D.C., and Dallas are role models for this, and I would have pointed to Denver as well, before this."

She thinks the union is "feeling emboldened to dismantle ProComp," so she encourages DPS to hold the line on the bonuses: "I hope the district appreciates the progress it's made, and instead of retreating from that progress, they actually add to it."

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