Denver Expands Merit Pay to Include Principals

Published January 1, 2007

An urban leader in teacher pay innovation has won a federal award to revamp how school administrators are compensated.

In November, the United States Department of Education gave Denver Public Schools (DPS) a $22.6 million, five-year grant from its Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) to expand the district’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp). DPS will receive $5.7 million in the first year.

The TIF is a U.S. Department of Education initiative created to promote the development of performance-based incentive programs that reward both teachers and principals. DPS received the second-largest of 16 TIF awards, totaling $42 million, for the federal program’s first year of funding. Other major recipients were the District of Columbia, Houston, Ohio, and South Carolina.

“I applaud the efforts of Denver Public Schools in securing this grant,” said Patricia Chlouber, the U.S. Secretary of Education’s regional representative. “While the immediate benefit is for teachers and principals, it will also greatly impact student achievement. It is our hope that this teacher incentive grant will encourage and reward teachers for being the very best they can.”

Building on Changes

A portion of Denver’s $22.6 million grant will be used to implement a multiple-measure structure to reward principals of successful schools.

The alternative compensation model for principals follows the successful implementation of the school district’s innovative teacher pay system. Denver voters approved a renewable $25 million-a-year tax increase in November 2005 to fund ProComp, which rewards teachers for a range of factors beyond years of seniority and graduate-degree coursework.

“Because we’ve made headway with ProComp in the arena of teacher compensation, it was a common-sense next step for us to develop a similar framework for paying principals,” said Brad Jupp, DPS senior academic policy advisor.

Jupp said rewards for school leaders will be based partly on measurable student achievement data, including state assessment scores and longitudinal growth results. School leaders can benefit from helping teachers set and achieve Student Growth Objectives: measurable goals that are “focused on growth in student learning,” related to course content, and tied to specific instructional strategies.

Like Denver teachers, principals also will be eligible for Distinguished Schools bonuses, based on high marks and demonstrated improvement on Colorado’s School Accountability Report (SAR). The district also is investigating knowledge and skills pay for school principals.

“DPS now has the power to subsidize tuition for programs that they think will develop the kind of leaders we want,” Jupp said.

Upgrade in Progress

Under ProComp in 2006-07, teachers can receive a $1,026 bonus for agreeing to work in a school designated as being “Hard to Serve” based on measures of student poverty, language acquisition, and other learning needs. Leaders who choose to take the helm of an underperforming school now will get “large bonuses” as well, Jupp said.

Actual amounts of financial rewards for school principals are yet to be determined. DPS officials plan to implement elements of the expansion by the end of the current school year, with “a piloted version of principal ProComp” ready to go in 2007-08, Jupp said.

DPS was awarded only about 60 percent of the requested $37.8 million for the five-year grant. School officials are working to refashion some of the details of the original plan.

“We’ve got a lot of thinking to do,” said Jupp.

An attempt in 2001-02 to reward Denver principals with performance pay was ineffective and quickly scratched. “Right now we have a terrible principal pay system,” Jupp said.

DPS leaders surveyed 140 of the district’s principals during the summer of 2006 to gauge interest in a performance pay plan. Jupp said fewer than 10 indicated they did not agree with pursuing the alternative pay proposal.

Successful Partnership

In addition to rewards for principals, grant money will be used to provide “real-time access” to student data, develop better assessment tools, and increase capacity for professional development so teachers and principals have “rigorous and consistent expectations,” according to the grant.

DPS has partnered with New Leaders for New Schools, a national organization dedicated to recruiting high-quality principals. New Leaders is at the forefront of a coalition of education reform institutions working to create an online database that will enable teachers and principals nationwide to share successful ideas.

“We’re excited to learn from Denver and their groundbreaking experience with ProComp to help take the lessons they’ve learned to districts around the country and to help them create effective incentive systems,” said Michael Gross, New Leaders project manager for the Effective Practice Incentive Fund.

New Leaders’ input is driving the development of the new principal component of the ProComp system, Gross said.

Essential Rewards

As a former teacher, Jupp sees the work done so far in transforming teacher compensation as bringing about a “sea change.” But he also noted that until recently, alternative pay systems for urban school leaders have received little attention.

“To be a principal in a high-performing school in an urban school district, you have to be extremely focused,” said Jupp, noting the vast range of specific qualifications it takes to succeed.

For someone who can excel at a job with so many demanding responsibilities, Jupp said, it only makes sense to find new ways to boost rewards.

“What we’ve done is try to build a pay system that rewards people of that caliber,” Jupp said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund,

Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers,

New Leaders for New Schools,