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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

For decades, the nation's teachers could count on at least one constant - the longer they served, the more they'd earn. But now, that's changing, thanks to the relentless pressure to improve student achievement. In a growing number of schools, teachers' future earnings now depend on their performance evaluations.

NPR's Larry Abramson has been visiting some of these districts, including Denver. It's a pioneer when it comes to performance pay.

LARRY ABRAMSON: In 2005, the voters of Denver were asked to approve a $25 million in funding to boost teacher pay. They said yes, but they wanted something in return, according to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Mayor JOHN HICKENLOOPER (Denver): Teachers are underpaid. I don't think anyone argues that. But if - given the sentiment of the public, if they want to have taxpayers vote more taxes, they're going to have to give some dramatic change in the way they go about teaching.

ABRAMSON: So Denver has boosted pay, but have the teachers changed instruction? Take this classroom full of very cute first-graders at Ellis Elementary in Denver. This is one of those United Nations classrooms. Kids speak Burmese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian.

Little Leo is learning how to write.

Ms. BONNIE STAACK (Teacher, Ellis Elementary School): And?

LEO (Student, Ellis Elementary School): Add more details to your story.

Ms. STAACK: And what do I mean by details?

LEO: You mean, details, like, more birds…

ABRAMSON: Teacher Bonnie Stack, a 20-year veteran, knocks herself out for these kids. But in the past, her energy was not reflected in her pay. Now, it is, and that's one reason why Bonnie Staack is bullish on Denver's new pay system known as ProComp. In fact, she helped to design it.

Ms. STAACK: I thought that there has to be a way for teachers to make more money because we put many hours in - after school and on weekends. And I felt like this might give us some hope.

ABRAMSON: In other words, this is a way of recognizing all that donated time?

Ms. STAACK: Yes, I think so.

ABRAMSON: Staack added about $2,000 to her base salary last year, thanks to ProComp. As a long-term teacher, Staack had reached the top of the pay ladder under the old seniority system. Under ProComp, with some extra effort, she can earn more. But like other pay systems, ProComp is meant to attack many different problems at once. That means performance pay often gives with one hand and takes away with the other. For example, Staack says, Denver wants to attract more teachers who speak Spanish.

Ms. STAACK: Because the teacher speaks Spanish, she gets an extra stipend. I don't speak Spanish, but I teach children from all over the world, and I don't get a stipend for that.

ABRAMSON: ProComp is also supposed to reward schools and teachers who raise test scores from year to year. But in immigrant neighborhoods, students keep changing schools when local rents go up. Teachers have to keep starting over with new kids.

Ms. STAACK: You know, we don't want to have that mobility. We want to keep the children here so that we can help them.

ABRAMSON: And having all that turnovers doesn't help you in any way?

Ms. STAACK: Exactly.

ABRAMSON: Right, right.

Ms. STAACK: So that makes it very difficult to meet their standards.

ABRAMSON: And one of the ways teachers can earn extra money is by meeting those standards. Procomp is a landmark for many reasons. Union reaction to these schemes has ranged from suspicious to downright hostile. But in Denver, the union helped design the plan. And not surprisingly, teachers with more experience are more enthusiastic about ProComp.

Ms. SANDY STOKELY(ph) (Teacher, Ellis Elementary School): I got $3,800.

ABRAMSON: Sandy Stokely, who teaches first grade at Ellis, finally got credit for advanced degrees in coursework she'd taken years ago.

Ms. STOKLEY: They gave me credits for things that I took in the '70s. It was fabulous. So for me, ProComp has been, you know, a good boost in my salary.

ABRAMSON: As I'm sure you know, there's a lot of question about whether or not those, you know, just straight college courses help students. I mean…

Ms. STOKLEY: But that wasn't the deal, you know? The deal was you've taken this and you've put in a lot of your own money. We have to take credits to keep our licenses current anyway. And nobody was ever helping us with that before.

ABRAMSON: In fact, teachers can generally earn more money through coursework than they can by boosting student performance.

Mr. STEVE ERIKSSON (Teacher, Merrill Middle School): But before we get to that, why don't you start on this vocab sheet?

ABRAMSON: Just a few miles down the road at Merrill Middle School, social studies teacher Steve Eriksson is respected for his experience and command of his subject. Like many experienced teachers here, he did the math and signed up for Procomp. It's helping his salary, but he's not sure it's helping the district.

Mr. ERIKSSON: New teachers, young teachers in the long run are not going to make as much money on it. And we could be losing those teachers to other districts.

Ms. DANIELLE PRICE (Teacher, Merrill Middle School): I was asked how do I feel as a brand-new teaching coming into a district where they're like, here is your pay system with procramp - ProComp.

ABRAMSON: That slip of the tongue from math teacher Danelle Price gets a laugh from her colleagues. It also says a lot about how many new teachers view a system that gives them a steep hill to climb.

Ms. PRICE: I thought it was pretty crappy, to say the least, because when you come in as a new teacher - I was told my starting salary is $34,200. I am in a hard-to-serve, hard-to-staff school. However, if I had gone to a school and I wasn't teaching math, and I didn't do a professional development, and I didn't meet my student growth objectives, I am at $34,200 for a long time.

ABRAMSON: But talk to administrators in Denver schools and you get a very different picture. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Stacy Miller is a commanding presence in the halls at Merrill Middle. She's the acting principal. And she has no doubt that ProComp will help her turn around this failing school.

Ms. STACY MILLER (Acting Principal, Merrill Middle School): It's allowing schools to have a much more focused conversation. All of those things do and will in this district translate into increased student achievement.

Unidentified Woman: Hey, price of calculators for schools, the number purchased…

ABRAMSON: To explain how this happens, Miller takes me around to a match class.

Ms. MILLER: So one of the things you'll notice from this classroom is that students are in groups. And that's one of the biggest things that we focus on in our professional development…

ABRAMSON: Miller has turned this school's problems, low math and reading scores, into an opportunity. Teachers can join in a group effort to address those problems. And if they submit the right paperwork, they can earn another small bonus.

Ms. MILLER: And the only people that do get the extra compensation are the people that are, have opted in - as is our language here - have opted into ProComp.

ABRAMSON: The vast majority of teachers still work under the old seniority system, but there's an air of inevitability about pay based on incentives. Academics studying this trend say it's got legs.

James Guthrie has been watching these developments from his perch at the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. He says the traditional argument that teachers need predictable salaries won't wash anymore.

Mr. JAMES GUTHRIE (National Center on Performance Incentives, Vanderbilt University): Join the rest of the world. I don't know what I'm going to earn next year either. I think that's the case for most of the workers in the workforce. What isn't predictable is how much more you're going to be paid. And I understand the desire for certainty, but very few of us have that.

ABRAMSON: As momentum behind performance pay grows, academics who are studying these systems may be in a growth industry. With each district concocting its own pay formula, the debate about which system works should keep those in the ivory tower busy for decades.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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