Edward W. Wiley, Eleanor R. Spindler, & Amy N. Subert
University of Colorado at Boulder

Could Denver’s ProComp pay program be responsible for attracting better teachers and increasing retention rates in hard-to-serve schools?  Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder seem to think so. This report (the first of two) sums up the impact the innovative pay program has made on student performance, teacher retention, and teacher attitudes and behaviors. Researchers tracked student and teacher data for eight school years beginning in 2001, and specifically matched student data to teachers in order to determine value-added teacher “effects.”

The analysis includes several noteworthy findings about the pay program.  One is that teachers who opted to take part in the ProComp system slightly outperformed their peers who did not join the system in their first year of teaching.  While on the surface this seems like encouraging news about innovative pay structures, the finding must be taken with a grain of salt because it can’t be determined whether ProComp spurred improvement or because teachers opting into the program were already effective teachers.  Perhaps a more durable finding is that schools with higher numbers of ProComp participants experienced higher retention rates.  This also proved to be true in hard-to-serve schools (although to a lesser degree than the retention boon experienced by less hard-to-serve schools).

Merit pay for teachers has long been a contentious issue, even more so as several states have written performance-pay plans into their Race to the Top applications. Some believe that linking student performance to teacher pay is as basic as two times two, while others think that this approach is inexact and unreliable because teachers can’t control which kids walk into their classrooms. The ProComp system is relatively new (fully implemented in 2006); however, it’s one of the most comprehensive plans and therefore isn’t as bogged down by problems inherent to smaller pay plans, which are harder to generalize from and usually experience implementation issues. 

The findings – specifically those denoting improved teacher retention-- hold lessons for districts wishing to reduce turnover in the hardest-to-serve schools. The report also sheds light on critical implementation issues inherent to such performance pay initiatives – a complete overhaul of the teacher salary system is more effective than layering on small performance rewards; buy-in from teachers union may be key to long-term success; and effectiveness is difficult to measure (and may take awhile), so a dose of patience when restructuring teacher pay is recommended.

Check out the complete study

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