Denver Nuggets

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 4 2008 3:17 PM

Denver Nuggets

There’s another city that spent the summer locked in high-stakes negotiations over teacher compensation: Denver.

Three years ago, voters there passed a levy to fund something called the Professional Compensation System for Teachers, or ProComp, designed to increase teacher pay and to reward the best teachers doing the hardest jobs. So far, ProComp has pumped $50 million into the city’s education system.  

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In May, Denver’s ambitious and reform-minded young school superintendent, Michael Bennet (the subject of an excellent piece by Katherine Boo in The New Yorker in 2007), proposed changes to ProComp that, he said, would make it more attractive to teachers, especially to the young teachers whom he wanted to bring into the system.

The leaders of the local teachers union didn’t like the changes. The basic dispute boiled down to this: The union wanted to take the extra ProComp money and distribute it more or less evenly throughout the system, so that every teacher would get a generous raise. Bennet wanted to use it to increase bonuses for teachers who taught in a high-poverty school, took a hard-to-fill job teaching math or science, or boosted their students’ test scores significantly. Under the old contract, teachers could receive $1,000 bonuses for each of those categories; Bennet wanted to increase each bonus to $3,000.  

So if you were a successful math teacher at a high-poverty school, under Bennet’s proposal you could make an extra $9,000 a year. The problem, as the union saw it , was one of fairness: If you were, say, an English teacher at an affluent school, you would have no shot at two of the bonuses.

Which, Bennet replied, was the whole idea: to convince those teachers that they should come teach where they are really needed.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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