Editor’s note: Jeff Buck is a math teacher at Denver’s East High School and a cofounder of the Denver Green School. He was a member of the task force that designed Denver’s landmark ProComp teacher compensation system, which recently marked its fifth birthday.
In Denver in 2002, the Joint Task Force for Teacher Compensation (JTF) designed the Professional Compensation System for Teachers (ProComp). We worked in a seminar-style format, which gave me the opportunity not only to consider deeply many of my own beliefs and assumptions about teaching and pay, but also to explore openly those of the other nine members.
I cannot speak for the others but at the end of it all, I could verbalize two core beliefs that I saw reflected in ProComp as we designed it: I understand teaching not just as a profession but as a career, and I believe that supporting the intrinsic motivation of people (or at least staying out of its way) offers the best chance we have for making positive change.
These two beliefs form a mutually reinforcing feedback loop that lies at the heart of my work on school reform and now, school creation.
On the first point, I know that 50 percent of new teachers will quit before their fifth year. I do not believe monetary compensation, as salary or as bonus, will solve that problem. Whether or not ProComp has done anything to retain teachers past this stage of their career remains an open question in my opinion.
I have not seen the program evaluation reports myself but I have heard from people who should know that it has improved retention and that it hasn’t made any significant difference. Apparently your results may vary.
This does not eliminate the need to think about the other 50 percent, many of whom will make teaching a career. I understood part of the problem and the seed of a solution when I realized I couldn’t think of another profession in which you know you will do substantially the same work at the beginning and the end of your career, no matter how long you work.
God bless those who can keep their steam up for 20 or 30 years, and I know several who have, but it would seem far more inviting if teaching had a career ladder offering access to a variety of activities with escalating responsibilities and pay while providing for continuing direct contact with kids.
Members of the JTF agreed that a teacher should not have to leave the classroom completely and permanently in order to approach, or even exceed administrative pay if they have the knowledge and skills and do the work to justify it. I have managed to craft (or stumble onto) my own sort of ladder but we have a long way to go toward an institutional response.
We discussed this but in the end, we recognized it went beyond the scope of the JTF’s mandate. We understood a compensation system could not by itself create it but we wanted the core elements of ProComp (Student Growth Objectives, Comprehensive Professional Evaluation, and Professional Development Units) to provide the hooks for a career ladder in teaching. We had to leave the details of the key feeder systems to someone else.
We talked a lot about the balance between bonus and salary. I think most of us doubted we had enough money to actually change people’s behavior ($10,000 came up in that context). And I personally think that the motivation for bad behavior increases with the dollar value of the potential reward. The evidence I have seen supports this belief.
Since then, I have read more about human motivation. For example, I came across the work of Deci and Ryan (Self Determination Theory) and “Drive,” Daniel Pink’s synthesis of decades of research. Both put words to my long held belief that “autonomy, competence, and relatedness … foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.” (from second paragraph of link above, italics in original)
I had also studied complexity, emergence and chaos for a couple of years and during the time the JTF met, my reading pile included “The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture” by Mark Taylor. In his first chapter, “From Grid to Network,” Taylor develops an architectural metaphor that I still think about. He uses the work of Mies van der Rohe, Robert Venturi, and Frank Gehry to illustrate a progression from grid thinking to network thinking.
Mies worked in grids and blocks to express the efficiency of modernism. Venturi wanted to push beyond simple geometric forms and ended up with what I describe as decorated boxes.With the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry tries to network interior and exterior spaces with the surroundings to achieve a very different architectural effect.
At the time I had hoped we could jump from the salary grid to a set of parts that interacted with each other (forming a network, in other words) allowing the emergence of new system behaviors and characteristics. What we ended up with, especially after rebalancing the system in favor of more and larger bonuses, amounts to a decorated box. I have learned not to look at this as a failure. After all, who am I to shortcut the succession of thinking?
But now almost 10 years later I can draw a fairly solid line between my experiences on the JTF and my contribution to the governance model of the Denver Green School. ProComp has become complicated rather than complex and it does not really provide the tools I need to figure out how to allocate a fixed budget for compensation in a democratically managed partnership such as we have dreamed right into reality.
It does give me a pretty good idea of which holes need fixing first and it tells me that we may need to think farther outside the box about revenue.
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