DENVER — Amber Wilson was once an evangelist for performance-based pay systems for teachers and went from school to school in Denver years ago, pushing her fellow educators to support one for their district.
But more than a decade after the city adopted such a system, Wilson, an English teacher, says it has morphed into “a monster of unintended consequences.”
Pay-for-performance models like Denver’s offer teachers bonuses for raising student achievement and for taking on tougher assignments, such as in schools with many students from low-income families. Wilson and many of her fellow educators across the country say that this model — once hailed as a way to motivate teachers — has delivered erratic bonuses while their base salaries stagnate amid rising living costs.
“We’ve been experimented on, and it didn’t work,” said Wilson, 45. “And it’s time for us to say, ‘No, no, no.'”
She was on a picket line in the bitter cold Monday, striking with more than 2,000 other educators to protest the pay system she had once promoted.
The strike is the first by Denver’s teachers in 25 years and many students joined in as well, leaving their classrooms with their backpacks and marching in the street alongside their teachers.
During the past year, in red states and blue states, in big liberal cities and in tiny Appalachian towns, teachers have fought back against core tenets of education reform in the past two decades: that schools can be made better without increasing funding, and that competition for resources among teachers and institutions, through school choice, is good for students.
Now, another one of those tenets, performance-based compensation, is under attack.
Denver’s pay system, called ProComp, went into effect in 2006 and became a national model. It was developed in partnership with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the local union that is now fighting it and upending the routines of more than 72,000 students with a districtwide strike.
The foundational principle of ProComp — evaluating teachers according to how well their students perform — was later enshrined in Colorado law and then in Race to the Top, President Barack Obama’s signature education initiative.
But such evaluation models typically required more testing of students to gather evidence of teacher impact — a change that was unpopular with parents, students and educators alike.
Since 2016, federal and state laws have shifted districts away from using student performance to judge teachers. In many ways, ProComp is now seen as a relic of an earlier era of school reform.
Denver teachers and their union leaders argue that it is more important to raise teachers’ base pay than to offer them modest and unpredictable bonuses. In a city surging with new money from the technology, aerospace and marijuana industries, teachers say they are struggling to pay off student loans and cannot afford rent, much less buy a home.
“I’m striking so I can feed my kids without using a food bank,” said Rebecca Lovvorn, a single mother of three and an English teacher inside a juvenile detention center. “I have kids that are doing very illegal activities that I know for sure make better money than I do. They are 15 years old. And that is a hard rationale to confront.”
Lovvorn will make about $44,000 this year, she said, with a bonus of about $2,000 for working in a school deemed difficult to serve. But she expects to take home just $31,200, after taxes and health insurance payments. (The federal poverty rate for a family of four is $25,100.)
Denver teachers, on average, earn $63,400 per year, including ProComp bonuses. The union wants more money to go to base salaries, in part by reducing a proposed $2,500 bonus for teachers in high-poverty schools, and eliminating a proposed $3,000 incentive for teachers in the district’s 30 highest-priority schools.
The union and the district are also battling over the types of teacher education courses that would lead to higher pay.
While the differences may seem slight to some, Rob Gould, the lead teacher negotiator, said that philosophically the two were still far apart. “They believe they should spend more money on higher bonuses,” he said of the district.
Denver’s new school superintendent, Susana Cordova, said in a recent video message that she believed the two sides were close to an accord, and that she agreed teachers need “more in their base salaries.”
Central to the debate over ProComp is whether the system has worked to attract and retain good teachers, and to improve achievement for Denver children. More than half of public school students in Denver are Latino. Two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and one-third are still learning English.
A 2014 study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that ProComp resulted in “very small” positive effects on students’ math scores and “very small” negative effects on students’ reading and writing scores. The report cautioned that the results had little “practical significance.”
In a separate paper, the Boulder researchers found that teachers who scored highly under ProComp were less likely to leave the district than those with low scores. Teacher retention is one of the goals of the program.
Nevertheless, Derek Briggs, a professor of education and an author of the studies, said he was not surprised that the pay system had prompted a strike.
“It’s been an ongoing source of dissatisfaction,” Briggs said. While educators enrolled in ProComp can earn thousands of extra dollars annually, fluctuations in pay from year to year — even when teachers perceive no change in their own efforts on the job — cause resentment and anxiety, he said.
Still, many education reformers continue to support Denver’s commitment to performance pay, calling it a crucial tool for raising achievement for nonwhite and poor children.
“What I find to be really troubling is the union’s insistence that we return to a system of pay that approaches compensation like the great equalizer,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group.
Tying pay to seniority and education levels, but not to performance, she said, “allows us to set up this facade where we pretend that all teachers are equally gifted and bring equal skills to the table.”
Underlying the battle in Denver is the fact that school funding in Colorado was about $2,000 below the national average per student in 2016. The state requires all tax increases to be approved directly by referendum, and during the midterm elections this past November, voters rejected an initiative to raise money for schools by increasing corporate taxes and personal income taxes on those earning more than $150,000 a year.
Last April, thousands of Colorado educators walked out of classrooms to protest low education funding.
Most Denver schools are staying open during the job action, with striking teachers replaced by substitutes who will be paid $212 a day, double the district's normal rate. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat and the founder of two charter schools, has said the strike would cost the district $400,000 a day, representing 1 to 2 percent of the annual budget if it lasts one week.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.