Ten years ago, the teachers union and public school system in Denver, Colorado worked together to create a strategic pay reform plan. Their goal was to increase student achievement and attract and retain high-quality teachers. Denver voters approved a modest tax increase to fund the program, while the rest of the program’s funding came from a Talent Incentive Program grant. The Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp) became a high-profile case study in differentiated pay.

Denver Public Schools teachers employed before January 2006 could opt in to the ProComp system, while all teachers employed after that point were automatically enrolled. ProComp teachers could earn bonuses between one and nine percent of their base salary by meeting requirements in four main areas: 

  1. Knowledge and Skills – advanced degrees and licenses, professional development
  2. Comprehensive Professional Evaluation – a successful supervisor evaluation
  3. Market Incentives – teaching in low-income schools, or in positions with a high turnover rate
  4. Student Growth – teaching in a “top performing” or “high growth” school, meeting Student Growth Objectives that teachers could set individually with principal approval, or “exceeding expectations” (EE)

Teachers took advantage of some incentives more than others. For example, between 2006-07 and 2009-10, 70 to 80 percent of teachers received a Student Growth Objective (SGO) bonus, while only 35 to 65 percent received a Market Incentive bonus.[i] Still, the majority of ProComp teachers received some kind of incentive bonus during this time period.

“ProComp identifies and rewards successful teacher excellence in a way that the old DPS compensation system did not.” – Goldhaber and Walch

Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch of the Center for Education Data & Research evaluated the ProComp initiative in 2013. The authors were cautious about drawing conclusions about ProComp’s direct effects on student achievements, since other policies were put into place during the same time period, but they did find some intriguing correlations.

“Our findings document significant student learning gains in DPS across grades and subjects…[but] there is not a consistent pattern across grade level and subject.” – Goldhaber and Walch

ProComp teachers’ middle school students saw the most earning growth in math, while non-ProComp teachers’ middle school students earned higher reading scores.[ii] This pattern switches for high school students – ProComp teachers are associated with higher reading scores, while non-ProComp teachers yield higher math scores.

Goldhaber and Walch also analyzed the correlation between the different ProComp incentives and teacher effectiveness. Teachers who received EE bonuses for student performance that exceeded expectations were typically more effective, as were teachers who received SGO bonuses.[iii]  On the other hand, the professional development and performance evaluation incentives did not appear to yield more effective teachers.

While many merit pay plans have showed little promise for increasing student achievement, the Denver experiment’s apparent success deserves more attention.

[i] Goldhaber, Dan and Walch, Joe. (2013). Strategic Pay Reform: A Student Outcomes-Based Evaluation of Denver’s ProComp Teacher Pay Initiative. Center for Education Data & Research. Available at http://www.cedr.us/papers/working/WP%202011-3%20Procomp%20Strategic%20Compensation%20(9-28).pdf
[ii] See note i.
[iii] See note i.