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On Teacher Pay, Obama Looks West... To Denver

Most news reports about Obama's excellent, reform-minded education speech yesterday have focused on his suggestion that we reward effective teachers by increasing their paychecks. What he didn't specify is how he'd go about doing that.

Obama's criticism of the "many supporters of my party [who] have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay" is rightly being described as a strike at teachers' unions, which are skeptical of "merit pay." Unions worry that the practice might increase competition among teachers, stifle their voices, and prove unfair to instructors in poor schools, where boosting students' scores is a particular struggle. Unions would prefer a "performance pay" scheme that would lean heavily on rewarding teachers for additional training and professional development. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, told an Education Week blog yesterday that his organization would support a program that provided bonuses for teachers that get certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, but not "failed merit-pay plans."

So exactly what sort of program would Obama support? When asked about the NEA's approach in the press briefing yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained that the president doesn't share the union's view. Obama wants "an expansion of performance pay that [he] talked about during the campaign and spoke about in front of town hall meetings and the NEA; included in that is also certification." (Indeed, when Obama spoke to the NEA back in July, he advocated for performance pay measures beyond additional certification, and he was booed by some in the crowd.) Gibbs went on to highlight "one instance in the Denver area, where the school system and teachers worked together to create a plan that was ultimately passed as part of a referendum."

Obama has routinely praised Denver's program, which was adopted in 2005 at a cost of $25 million. ProComp, short for Professional Compensation System for Teachers, involves paying teachers who opt in to the program a base salary, on top of which they can receive bonuses based on several metrics. These include agreeing to work in high-needs schools, having students exceed expectations on state exams, receiving a master's degree or advanced certification, and receiving positive evaluations from principals.

ProComp has had its hiccups: In August, for instance, teachers threatened a strike when the school district proposed expanding the program in a way unions thought favored new teachers over veterans. But overall, performance pay seems to have served Denver well. In 2007, a year into ProComp, the city saw a 10-percent uptick in teacher applications for "hard-to-serve" schools, and students' reading and math scores rose between 2007 and 2008 in almost all grades.

It's this brand of comprehensive performance pay that Obama has in mind. He's invited teachers to the table to discuss policy, but his strong language Tuesday--"I reject a system that rewards failure"--suggests he's going to forge ahead with promoting his policies, even as unions maintain their defenses.  

--Seyward Darby