Striking Teachers in Denver Shut Down Performance Bonuses – Here’s How That Will Impact Education

Yves here. While in theory, measuring and paying for performance is desirable, once you get outside areas like sales, it is very difficult to measure performance (trust me, there are academic papers which explicitly say that 100 years+ of experience with performance review systems shows them to have failed).

By Nathan Favero, Assistant Professor of Public Administration & Policy, American University School of Public Affairs. Originally published at The Conversation

Editor’s note: Denver teachers reached a tentative deal on Feb. 14 that ended a three-day strike.

Besides raises of 7 to 11 percent, one of the concessions they won was the end of performance-based pay, which they said was unreliable and led to unacceptably low base pay.

Nathan Favero, an education policy expert at American University, answers three questions about the effectiveness of performance-based pay and how its elimination will impact education in Denver.

How did performance affect teachers’ pay?

While teachers’ base salaries were mostly determined by their education levels and teaching experience, in Denver public schools, teachers also got substantial bonuses based on a number of other factors, including performance.

The main performance-based bonus went to teachers in schools where students performed particularly well on standardized tests. If a school was designated as high-achieving, then all teachers in that school received the bonus that year. The size of bonuses for teachers working in recognized schools varied from year to year, but amounts have been as large as US$5,100 per teacher.

Under early versions of the district’s bonus pay system, teachers were also recognized individually for good performance. However, these individual performance bonuses were largely done away with in 2015. Teachers still received individual performance evaluations every year, but in most schools, these evaluations did not affect teacher pay, except when a teacher was found to be severely deficient.

Even after 2015, individual performance pay was still used in one set of schools. Every year, the district identified 30 “highest priority” schools. Teachers in these schools could receive bonuses based on individual performance evaluations. These evaluations rated teachers based on several data sources, including students’ standardized test scores, surveys filled out by students, achievement of student learning goals set by the teacher and classroom observations conducted by school leaders or peers.

How effective is pay-for-performance?

Research teams based at the University of Colorado at Denver and the University of Colorado at Boulder have concluded that the pay-for-performance system had few effects on students.

One analysis found that performance incentives caused a tiny increase in math scores, but even these small gains were offset by slight drops in reading and writing scores. Other analyses found no evidence of any effecton standardized test scores.

Despite lackluster results on standardized tests, Denver’s pay-for-performance system may have helped a bit when it comes to retaining teachers. One analysis estimates that the city retained up to 160 teachers per year who otherwise would have quit if it wasn’t for the performance pay system. Given the fact that the district had 3,700 teachers at the time of the study, this means about 4.3 percent of Denver’s teacher workforce was potentially retained because of the pay system. Another analysis indicates that the retained teachers were better-than-average teachers, which makes them particularly important to the district.

Across the nation, other school districts have had similar experiences with pay-for-performance. On average, teacher pay-for-performance systems seem to produce a small improvementfor students, though not always.

The limited success of Denver’s performance pay system may be due in part to its complexity. Researchers found through surveys and interviews of teachers that many of them did not know exactly how bonuses could be earned or even had wrong information. Many teachers also felt that the bonus system was unfair and that the individual performance evaluation could sometimes be manipulated by, for example, setting easily achievable goals to be assessed with an administrator at the end of the year.

So what changes under the new contract?

Under the new labor deal, almost all pay-for-performance is eliminated. Instead of paying bonuses to teachers in schools with impressive standardized test scores, $750 bonuses will be paid to teachers in up to 10 schools selected by a committee for excellence in areas such as health education, counseling services and community engagement. The agreement specifically states that these awards cannot be based on teacher performance evaluation data or school report cards that contain standardized test scores.

The deal also eliminates bonuses tied to individual performance evaluations for teachers in high-priority schools. Extra pay for teachers in hard-to-staff schools will continue. However, all teachers working in these schools will receive the same bonus, regardless of their performance evaluation.

Teachers have asked for a pay system that is more predictable. The revised pay system should give them more certainty at the beginning of the year about how much they can expect to make. Students and administrators will have to hope that the district can continue to retain high-quality teachers despite the elimination of performance bonuses that may have helped persuade some of these teachers to stay in the district in the past.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    If the overall goal is to lower salaries, under whatever smoke and mirrors is available, why not simply peg teacher pay at the local minimum wage? Adding more complexity increases costs anyway.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      The flip side of pay-for-performance is the use of test scores as weapons against teachers, and as pretexts for closing public schools and replacing them with charters.

      It’s no accident that the beachhead for school privatization/charter schools was poor neighborhoods in urban districts. The economic and social stresses in those communities usually correlate with lower test metrics, which is then used to claim those schools are “failing,” and need to be closed and replaced by charter schools.

      You’ll also notice an infestation of Teach For America types in states and districts where the public schools are under attack and charter schools are invading, who use banal and insipid social justice talking points to cannibalize public education.

      Oh, and if you like public school closings and school privatization, you’ll love Rachel Maddow’s Stanford pal, Cory Booker.

      1. rps

        It’s no accident that the beachhead for school privatization/charter schools

        Education tax dollars is the biggest mega-billions jackpot that keeps on giving; particularly for U.S. Charter Schools. Under the protection of the U.S. government, Fethullah Gulen, a multi-billionaire who resides in Pennsylvania, runs one of the largest charter school systems in the U.S.A (see list here). All publicly funded. Add the fact scores of state lawmakers took trips to Turkey subsidized by Gulen’s Hizmet movement. These same legislators just happen to oversee the U.S. charter school network. Iman Gulen’s charter schools also import a large number of his followers- uhm- teachers on H1Bi visas for Math and Sciences since the US doesn’t have ‘enough’ competent STEM teachers. Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds discusses his other business adventures.

    2. pretzelattack

      adds more administrators, the overall goal is for them to lower teacher pay, not admin pay, andfunnel it to private contractors–charter schools, testing companies, consultants etc.

      1. TimR

        I think the trick is, we have to encourage everyone to go for a career in administration… Eventually, everyone will have well paid jobs AND not have to do any actual work. I’ve been reading Graeber’s writing on bureaucracy and this is the conclusion I’ve reached…

  2. Steve Ruis

    Has anyone noticed, in the first place, that if teachers were motivated by money, they never would have become teachers in the first place? Salaries are too low to start and too low later on and working only 10 months per year will keep them that way. People motivated by money go into jobs that have bonus structures or commission structures, anything where how successful they are determines how much they get paid. Teaching is the exact opposite from this and so tends to attract people who do not constantly want to be focused upon how to make more money.

    1. KLG

      That two months “off”? A trope of an increasingly jealous, neoliberal culture. Many, if not most, teachers pay their own way through graduate programs in those two months out of the classroom…Besides, if you are responsible for young children or adolescents five days a week, 36 weeks a year, while attempting to satisfy our various detrimental standardized testing regimes, the two months resting or studying is absolutely essential for your mental health.

      1. Arizona Slim

        My mother was a teacher. She used her “off” months for professional development courses. Those weren’t what any of the Slim family referred to as a vacation.

        1. KLG

          Yes. This “teachers work only 9-10 months a year” bullshit got on my last nerve about 40 years ago and it still drives me nuts.

          What is truly disheartening is to see and hear my peeps from back home talk about teachers this way. They know we had excellent teachers for the most part, who were respected and appreciated by all. Well, mostly all. Now? Teachers are little more than parasites feeding at the public trough. Arrrrggghhh!

  3. Penny

    I believe there was a brilliant pay-for-performance scandal in the South of the US with teachers’ teaching the exam questions to the students before the students sat the exams….tremendous improvement

    I believe the financial crisis banksters should have been paid for their performance–as in fired, all wealth confiscated and some prison time for J Diamond et al

    I believe a lot of things but what I don’t believe is that it is possible to ‘pay for performance’; its a right wing idea that fits right into the same meme as working hard and getting ahead, etc etc

  4. flora

    This is good news. As is the result of the W.VA teachers’ strike that got the charter school advancement bill withdrawn. The whole attack on public schools is being lead by right-wing outfits that want to privatize govt. and lower taxes at all costs. A win for public schools funding and school teachers is a blow to the r-w dreams of dismantling govt programs that serve the public, imo. So each strike win is double-good.

    Source Watch reports the State Policy Network, a r-w “think tank and resource center”, has a specific ‘Messaging Guide’ for talking about the teachers’ strikes. I think you’ll enjoy this:

    SPN Produces ‘Messaging Guide’ to Smear Teacher Strikes

    The State Policy Network produced a “Messaging Guide: How to Talk About Teacher Strikes” as teacher strikes unfold to demand higher pay and more school funding in Oklahoma and Kentucky, following the statewide strike in West Virginia.[11]

    The guide opens with,

    “A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, and classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc. This is an opportunity to sympathize with teachers, while still emphasizing that teacher strikes hurt kids. It is also not the right time to talk about school choice-that’s off topic, and teachers at choice-schools are often paid less than district teachers.”

    Instead, the guide suggests talking about how unfair and hard it is on poor parents to have to pay for daycare for their kids when the schools are closed. Right…. I’m sure the r-w outfits care about poor parents. not.

  5. Tomonthebeach

    One of the biggest headaches with P4P is that teachers do not choose the aptitude of their students.

    If you inherit a mob of dolts, and bring them way up to say average – no P4 your P because the standard is Georgetown Prep. Just toss in 4 or 5 kids with reading disabilities, and the entire class will suffer as teacher tries to fix them while the rest of the class looks out the window or trades spitballs.

    Teachers are not in the profession for the money, otherwise they would have majored in something else more profitable. It is hard for neolib capitalists to conceive of people working to be of service to their communities rather than to crush their competition and become squillionaires. Enter Betsy DaBoss.

    1. neo-realist

      I wanted to more or less get to that point on what P4P doesn’t address: How do you reward special education teachers responsible for educating kids who don’t grade well on exams and arguably have a much more rigorous job than teachers who educate kids with learning aptitude and capacity to learn?

      1. Joe Well

        @neo-realist, in theory, you would evaluate the improvement in students’ scores rather than scores over all. In practice, yours is a completely valid point because tests tend not to be fine-grained enough to evaluate the small improvements.

        Also in practice, special ed and English language learners tend to becomes casualties of all this when they are exempted from tests and become low priorities in a test-driven system.

    2. Joe Well

      teachers do not choose the aptitude of their students

      Au contraire!

      As a former teacher, I can say that one of the worst things about starting as a new teacher in a school is that the existing teachers have already haggled over who gets what students (middle school teachers will even sometimes talk with teachers at the feeder elementary school), and you, the new teacher, can end up with a very, ahem, interesting group of students! On the other hand, if you are not getting along with your school’s “leadership,” you could find yourself in the same position.

      One reason among many that turnover for new teachers is so high despite the enormous investment in credentials.

  6. richard

    Way to go, colorado teachers!
    We don’t have pay pegged to test scores in Seattle
    and now we’re less likely to ever face that hateful nonsense
    because of your stand
    thank you sisters and brothers!

  7. Joe Well

    once you get outside areas like sales, it is very difficult to measure performance

    This is an extremely important point that our not-nearly-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are leadership class (politicians, pundits, reporters, philanthropists) do not grasp, and take merely as evidence of teachers shirking accountability.

    A related issue: at most, a middle school or high school teacher might have 100-120 unique students (God help that teacher). That means that we’re working with a pretty small sample size for drawing conclusions.

  8. John Beech

    I’m an engineer. I have also taught for a living and hold a secondary education math and science teaching certificate. Plus I’ve supported myself for years via pure commission sales. This background, I believe, entitles me to share my opinion regarding basing teacher pay on the results of student performance on standardized tests. It’s the most singularly stupid thing I’ve ever heard of.

    Want better results from students poor at math? Give them to your best teachers. Doesn’t work that way. Instead, the best teachers get the best students. It’s a lot more fun that way and a heck of a lot easier for the teacher. The engineer in me always thought that odd, but that’s the way of the world in secondary education – in my experience. And don’t get me started on charter school as other than a way to segregate the haves from the have-nots (think about what this really means).

    Meanwhile, I totally grok how standardized testing got its start. And at heart I approve of what they’re trying to do. In practice, it’s a disaster.

    Sadly, I also believe teaching shouldn’t be left to educators because you get such nonsense and twaddle like, ‘everybody should go to college’. May as well be a bald man asking the barber if you need a haircut. Anyone surprised he says, yes?

    The solution? Above my pay grade but I suspect we need to leave it at the hands of the locals despite it meaning we get disasters like the teaching of creationism in lieu of evolution in some places. Not that evolution gets it entirely right – ever seen photos of some 50M year old bug entombed in amber that looks identical to a modern variant? What idiot came up with the idea modern man is only a few tens or hundreds of thousand years old? Sigh.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      I worked in the construction trades (carpentry/cabinetmaking) in my twenties, and just retired from teaching high school ESL in the NYC public schools. I can guarantee you that it isn’t teachers who are the motivators behind the “everyone must go to college” racket. Since we’re actually in the classroom with students, we have the clearest picture of students’ interests and aptitudes.

      No, the current iteration of this nonsense is coming from from on high, well above the school/district administration level (though they buy into it/are cowed by the power behind it). It’s primarily coming from so-called reformers – the billionaire/captive policy shop/Harvard/TFA/tech/testing/media-industrial complex – seeking to control and monetize each and every data point in the classroom. And expect it to come wrapped in vapid, hijacked social reform rhetoric, as when teachers are criticized for “low expectations” when recommending the trades to students.

      Decades ago, when school districts still had functioning vocational educational programs, there was valid criticism of teachers and administrators placing (dark-skinned/immigrant/working class) students in those programs, when they would have been better-served in a college-bound program, but those days are now long ago and far away.

  9. Adam Eran

    As most commenters notice, the pay-for-performance strategy is part of the billionaire school “reform” agenda. This is typical MBA-think: Pay better, then you’ll get better teachers, and better teachers make better educational outcomes (certificates!) inevitable. Other such strategies include (union-busting) charter schools and testing, testing, and some more testing.

    None of these strategies have scientific validation as improving educational outcomes, much less teacher or student satisfaction. Nevertheless, our billionaire brethren have funded even propaganda films (Waiting for Superman…which includes coverage of “tiger superintendent” Michelle Rhee) to promote their agenda. Waiting for Superman touts the Finnish school system as the one to emulate, yet omits mentioning that Finnish teachers are well paid, unionized and tenured.

    So…what does correlate strongly with educational outcomes? The level of student poverty. In the U.S. 23% of our kids are poor. In Finland, 2%.

    So…all this fiddle-farting around with schools and teachers turns out to be a distraction from the real culprit. Gosh, I wonder whether that was on purpose…!

    Anyway…it looks like the cat is out of the bag here as teachers, en masse, are calling “bullshit.”

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