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Denver high school social studies teacher Nick Childers, right, chants as teachers picket outside South High School on February 11, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Denver teachers are striking for the first time in 25 years after the school district and the union representing the educators failed to reach an agreement after 14 months of contract negations over teacher pay. Credit: Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

In an era of fractured politics, teachers of different ethnicities, with varying levels of seniority, in school districts big and small, in both Democratic and Republican states, seem unified on at least one front: They are not being paid as they should. Over the last two years, insufficient pay was at the core of statewide disputes in Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Colorado and Washington State. The high-profile teachers’ strike of the Los Angeles Unified School District less than a month ago was a clarion call for other big city districts. Now we can add Denver to the growing list of places where teachers are taking their pay demands to the picket line.

After Colorado Governor Jared Polis declined to enter into negotiations between the union and district, the leaders of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union (DCTA) announced its members would strike on February 11. So on Monday, Denver teachers hit the streets.

We have to be honest about these inexact pay-for-performance models: They blame teachers for students’ underachievement as much as they reward teaching excellence.

While the district and DCTA argue over the amount of the raise, they both agree that teachers need one. Teacher pay continues to lag behind the pay of other college-educated workers, according to a 2016 report published by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. The report found: “In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17.0 percent lower than those of comparable workers — compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994.” Expect to see more strikes, particularly in cities like Denver, where a tech boom has increased the cost of living for all workers.

What is creating an impasse is the taxpayer-funded Denver Public Schools’ Professional Compensation, a pay-for-performance system popularly known as ProComp. It was developed in 2005, by DCTA leadership, in collaboration with the school district. The move to adopt a pay-for-performance system raised eyebrows: DCTA was one of the few local unions to embrace the system, to the chagrin of national affiliates.

Instead of looking at length of service, tenure and education, factors districts generally consider when setting teacher pay, the union wanted to find a way to reward good teachers. Under the ProComp system, teachers are paid based on placement in hard-to-fill positions; educational advancement, including participation in professional development activities; professional evaluations and student academic growth, as defined by test scores. But we have to be honest about these inexact pay-for-performance models. They blame teachers for students’ underachievement as much as they reward teaching excellence.

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Teachers say this payment structure, based on multiple variables, causes their salary to fluctuate dramatically, making it almost impossible to budget properly. In addition, they feel the system has throttled base salaries, which are not keeping pace with cost-of-living increases. First-year teachers in Denver Public Schools for the 2019-20 school year earn $43,255, according to The Denver Post’s reporting, based on Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting numbers. Teachers in the nearby Boulder Valley city district earn $47,726, while teachers in the Adams County School District 12, in the northern suburbs of Denver, start at $40,783. However, it’s the rising median household income of people moving into the city that is putting pressure on the district to raise salaries.

Higher incomes lead to increased housing costs, which make housing unaffordable for current residents. But instead of addressing the rising costs of living in Denver, ProComp offers a poor and unequal substitute. “What we got given is a system of Wall Street-style bonuses that mask the erosion of our salaries,” Denver math teacher Jeff Buck told education news outlet Chalkbeat. “People have finally figured that out. It’s why people are angry.”

It’s very hard to attribute student growth to a particular teacher because much of student performance is connected to forces outside the school: poverty, wealth, access to transportation, exposure to crime, parental educational levels, and more.

Paying teachers based, in part, on students’ standardized test scores is far from a perfect science. Achievement test score data was not designed for the purposes of promoting or grading students, evaluating teachers or schools. In fact, basing these decisions on test results corrupts what the tests are measuring — knowledge acquisition. When you connect financial, social and political incentives to achievement tests, you influence outcomes, sometimes negatively. Teachers might cheat on tests to get a higher salary or to avoid punishment. They might also teach to the test in ways that interfere with authentic learning.

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Moreover, it’s very hard to attribute student growth to a particular teacher because much of student performance is connected to forces outside the school: poverty, wealth, access to transportation, exposure to crime, parental educational levels, and more. As former Stanford University educational researcher Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues point out in their 2011 research brief on teacher evaluation, “It is impossible to fully separate out the influences of students’ other teachers, as well as of school conditions, on their reported learning. No single teacher accounts for all of a student’s learning. Prior teachers have lasting effects, for good or ill, on students’ later learning, and current teachers also interact to produce students’ knowledge and skills.”

Incentivizing professional development with money is also questionable. In 2005, when the district and the union agreed to the ProComp system, we were in an era in which calls for teacher accountability were loud. Political compromises were made that didn’t make much sense. For instance, while professional development is necessary and should be part of the job; it should be an expectation, not a means to get higher pay – as it is now under the ProComp system.

A starting teacher salary in the Denver Public Schools for the 2019-20 school year comes in at $43,255.

I don’t disagree with everything that ProComp does: I do think it’s reasonable to differentiate pay in subject areas where there are teacher shortages, such as science, special education and math. However, there is a reason why most districts have a ladder system based on longevity and levels of education: Budgeting is much more predictable, which is especially important in a rapidly changing job market.

A quality teacher is the most important influence on students’ academic achievement. I can understand wanting to reward your top teachers. But Denver Public Schools will lose all their teachers, good and bad, if teachers can’t pay soaring rents. A predictable base pay that is attentive to the cost of living must take priority over rewarding top teachers. The sad irony is that a union that values its members can be blamed for bringing ProComp to Denver.

This story  about Denver teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously,...

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