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Finance & Taxation        < Previous        Next >


Denver's Merit Pay System


Q. How is the merit pay plan working in one of the biggest cities it's being tried, Denver, Colo.?


Very well. After one start-up year under an incentive plan, the city's schools are marking early success - and ironically, it's thanks in large part to the teachers union.

One triumph for this accountability tool is that hundreds of additional teachers have applied to work at the city's worst schools, drawn by new higher pay. And even though teachers already on the payroll didn't have to participate in the "ProComp" bonus pay program, nearly half have signed up. (Those hired since 2006 are automatically enrolled.)


The biggest test is yet to come: whether teacher rewards will lead to better student grades and higher test scores. The pilot program suggests they might.


Denver school officials worked closely with the teachers' union to quell union concerns that the plan might be perceived as elitist or unfair to some teachers.


Denver is part of a nationwide trend toward more merit pay plans. The U.S. Department of Education recently spent nearly $100 million in support of such local programs, with substantial private foundation funding as well. States such as Minnesota and Florida are involved, and cities such as Austin are studying Denver's model, hoping, for instance, to reward teacher cooperation with one another as well as individual efforts.


The lure in Denver was that teachers could end up making more money as a whole, and the American Federation of Teachers is helping some local unions negotiate new merit-pay plans. Unions can't help seeing that the rise of standardized tests under the 2001 No Child Left Behind law provides benchmarks for measuring teacher performance.


The conventional wisdom is that merit plans will succeed only if teachers are consulted in how to design them, although unions should not have veto power over them. Teachers' concerns about subjective judgments or the misuse of tests to evaluate progress need to be addressed. Schools also need to use such rewards to boost teacher-to-teacher mentoring and teacher interaction with parents.

Proponents of merit pay plans say the same fairness that teachers give to students in grading can apply equally to merit pay.


Bottom line issues are crucial, though, as these plans require taxpayers to provide extra revenue beyond the basic school budget.


Homework: See the website of the Denver program,


By Susan Darst Williams Finance & Taxation 07 2008


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