Teachers Unions as Agents of Reform

An Interview with Brad Jupp
Blog Post
May 4, 2006

Voters in Denver, Colo., in 2005 overwhelmingly approved a $25 million tax increase to fund a new, nine-year performance-based pay system for the city's teachers. ProComp, the new teacher pay system funded by the tax initiative, reflects a landmark agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and the Denver Board of Education to link teacher pay more closely to performance and market conditions–something that rarely happens in public education.

Unlike traditional teacher pay schemes, in which salary is determined by experience and higher education coursework, ProComp will tie raises or bonuses for teachers to positive professional evaluations, meeting objectives for improving student learning, working in hard-to-staff schools or positions, and building professionally-relevant knowledge and skills. Teachers who perform well on these measures will be able to earn much more money over the course of their careers than under traditional pay plans based on experience and education.

ProComp is the result of an initiative begun in 1999, when the Denver Board of Education proposed a pay-for-performance experiment in collective bargaining negotiations with DCTA. DCTA agreed, and 16 Denver schools became part of a four-year experiment to see how performance-based pay would work and determine what a performance-based pay plan for Denverteachers should look like. In 2004, both the Denver Board of Education and the DCTA voted to create a districtwide ProComp plan as part of the Denver teachers' contract, and the November 2005 levy provided the funding necessary to implement the plan.

Brad Jupp, who taught in Denver's public schools for 20 years, was the lead DCTA negotiator on the team that negotiated the pilot project in 1999, and for the next 5 years he worked on the team that implemented the ProComp pilot. He also assisted the Joint Task Force on Teacher Compensation, the body that crafted the longer-term ProComp Agreement. Jupp is an outspoken advocate of both labor organizing and quality education for disadvantaged kids. Education Sector Senior Policy Analyst Sara Mead spoke with Jupp about ProComp, teacher unionism, and the future of the teaching profession.

Education Sector: How did you end up working on ProComp?

Brad Jupp: I started out teaching in Denver in an urban middle school in fall 1986. I brought two basic traits into the teaching profession: a very strong commitment to teaching kids to read, and an almost far-left commitment to labor and workers' rights. Teaching is one of the few places where you can indulge yourself in both of those things at once. From the very earliest period of my teaching career, I believed that collective bargaining should serve as a vehicle to meet the needs of children. It wasn't just about work hours and working conditions and wages; it was about creating conditions for workers that allowed teachers to save kids' lives.

By my second year teaching, I was a member of my union's negotiating team, and by the third year I was the chief negotiator. From about 1990 to 1999 my career as a labor leader was pretty conventional. During that same period, my career as a teacher shifted towards alternative education. By 1995 I was teaching in a very small alternative middle school that served kids who were one due process step from the street. I taught all different subjects. It was a dream job, really rewarding and interesting work.

In the spring of 1999 the Denver board of education brought to DCTA a very interesting proposal on teacher pay: They would pay senior teachers substantially more–five to seven thousand dollars a year at the end of their careers–if we made their compensation increases contingent on student learning. That was a trade-off that our members couldn't ignore: We couldn't jump to an immediate no. It was a unique situation, one where we saw a chance to mix some of the interests that drive so much in public education, interests focused on student learning on the one hand, and interests focused on teacher pay and working conditions on the other.

The two negotiating teams worked together in traditional, adversarial collective bargaining and crafted a compromise: the Pay-for-Performance Pilot. When we reached that compromise, my old friend Bruce Dickinson, the Executive Director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), said, in effect, "You've bargained for this, so now you actually have to sit on this Design Team to carry this out."

Denver's Experience with Pay-for-Performance and ProComp

ES: Why were you able to develop a pay-for-performance model in Denver when other places haven't been?

BJ: Denver had a combination of the right opportunities and people who were willing, once they saw the opportunities, to put aside their fears of losing and work with other people to try to take advantage of those opportunities. The people included a school board president willing to say, "If the teachers accept this, we'll figure out how to pay for it. They included the teacher building reps who said, “This is too good to refuse outright; let's study it." They included a local foundation that, once we negotiated the pay for performance pilot, realized we might actually be serious and offered us a million dollars to help put it in place. They included the Community Training and AssistanceCenter, the group that provided us with technical support and a research study of our work. They were willing to take on the enormous and risky task of measuring the impact of the pilot. And they included 16 principals in Denver who were able to see that this was going to be an opportunity for their faculties to build esprit de corps, to make a little extra money, to do some professional development around measuring results. I don't really think there was a secret ingredient other than people being able to move past their doubts and seize an opportunity. It was a chance to create opportunities where the rewards outweighed the risks. I don't think we do that much in public education.

ES: So why doesn't it happen other places?

BJ: I think that we have to remember that it is happening in more places, certainly more places than it was 25 years ago:Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis, Rochester, N.Y.; Douglas County, Colo., Denver–more and more places are doing things like this. We are at a moment in time, I think, when the wave is breaking, and we will see more and more efforts like the ones we now see in beacon districts like the ones I listed.

But public schools have a harder time making changes, especially in the way people are paid, for a number of reasons. First, we don't have a history of measuring results, and we don't have a results-oriented attitude in our industry. Furthermore, we have configured the debate about teacher pay so that it's a conflict between heavyweight policy contenders like unions and school boards. Finally, we do not have direct control over our revenue. It is easier to change a pay system when there is a rapid change in revenue that can be oriented to new outcomes. Most school finance systems provide nothing but routine cost of living adjustments. If that is all a district and union have to work with, they're not going to have money to redistribute and make a new pay system.

ES: What were some of the specific lessons you learned in the pay-for-performance pilot?

BJ: The most important lesson was that you can build pay systems around pragmatic judgments. By pragmatic judgments, I mean decisions that are not necessarily based on researched psychometric standards but reflect common sense and professional judgment to make effective decisions. In fact, almost all pay systems–including the single salary schedule in place in most schools today–are built around pragmatic judgments. We will never create a perfectly objective basis for compensation decisions, but if we rely on the common sense of professionals we can go a long way.

The second thing we learned, which is very important, was that differentiated pay did not destroy workplace morale; it created new challenges, but in our pilot schools, we never saw the plummet in morale predicted by opponents of alternative compensation schemes.

The third thing we learned was that, when teachers set goals and plan to meet them, students perform well whether teachers meet those goals or not. When teachers set high-quality objectives, objectives that have clear, measurable outcomes and well-articulated strategies to meet them, and those objectives are assessed routinely throughout the year–kids learn more. Learning became the cornerstone of the way we built the pay system.

A fourth thing that we learned was that we need to think hard about how to connect the stakes in a pay system to the behavior that we're trying to change. Policymakers often think of pay systems in very simple ways: "If I put a lot of money on the table, it's going to change people's behavior dramatically, so I'll put a lot of money on the table for the behavior I want." But you often don't need to do that, and you may, in fact, be making a big mistake.

We've found, for instance, that a $1,000 incentive to work in a high-poverty school with low-performing kids doesn't motivate teachers in schools with wealthier kids that perform well to move to that low performing school. On the other hand, it does motivate teachers to stay at that high-poverty school after they've been hired there. Maybe what you need to do is to put a small amount of money on the table, stabilize the workforce, and then build the workforce in these schools over time, rather then to assume that what you want the incentive to do is to steal teachers from the suburbs. Another example is that it doesn't take a whole lot of money–only about $330 in the compensation model that we have–to get people to commit to look at their objectives twice a year. But if there's no money, they don't do it. Sometimes smaller stakes make a big difference.

ES: Why was ProComp important to you?

BJ: What was compelling for me about ProComp was that it gave teachers as workers an opportunity to stand up and say, "We succeed at what you ask us to do and therefore we're willing to stake our pay on it."

It also offered a constructive alternative to the stale debates about whether test results should be used to make any decisions in education and, in particular, to affect teacher pay. I think it's incredibly stupid for members of the education profession, especially teacher union leaders to take the con side in that debate. The smart thing is for educators and labor leaders, to act as experts and help resolve the issue so the profession can move beyond the simplistic arguments that form the present state of the debate.

We can make agreements that change the way teachers are paid only if we are willing to experiment with methods of measuring student achievement that are directly tied to individual teachers. I use the word experiment, because there are no psychometrically proven ways to tie student data to teacher behavior, let alone teacher pay. But it begs common sense to say that teacher behavior doesn't have an impact on student learning, and it begs common sense that we should pay the same for effective teaching and ineffective teaching just because we are waiting on psychometricians to get around to finishing their research projects. Therefore, we will have to depend on a pragmatic system. Professionalism, though, is ultimately always geared around pragmatics, not psychometrics. What makes a good doctor a good doctor is the ability to use professional judgment and work with other medical professionals, not crippling reliance on outside expertise. We can do that as teachers, too, but we have to change the way we think of ourselves as workers.

Changing How We Think About Teachers as Workers

ES: What does it mean to change how teachers think of themselves as workers?

BJ: Teachers will have to acknowledge that we make a difference in the learning lives of the children we teach. If I'm a 5th grade teacher, I should be able to say I have made a measurable impact on the students who have spent the year with me. Furthermore, I should be able to diagnose and support cases where an individual child doesn't make as much progress or reach the target level of achievement. I should not say, "You know, these kids come from tough homes. Some of them don't speak English very well. I'm not going to be able to teach them." I think the willingness to accept that kind of accountability will get teachers a much higher status in the world.

It is an interesting paradox among teachers who resist the current wave of accountability measures that they are willing to embrace similar older models like the Advanced Placement system. The best high school AP teachers will stand up and say, "Yup, the kids I teach are going to pass the AP test because I teach them, and if they get a teacher who's not as good as I am, they're not going to pass that AP test." I'd like to see that kind of professional chutzpah across the entire teaching profession.

ES: So why doesn't that openness to accountability come across in public debates?

BJ: I think that too often we're debating the wrong thing. We've gotten so caught up debating the psychometric validity of states' standardized tests, and whether or not we're going to trust the results from these large scale tests, that we've forgotten that there are far more pragmatic measures of student learning that we can use every day to make decisions of consequence.

There are other things to inhibit us. The job of teaching has been one where there's too much individual autonomy and not enough collective commitment to getting results. And so we are unpracticed as a profession in talking about results. We organize our workplace in isolated cells that we call classrooms that rarely get together and talk about results. Some elementary school teachers, mainly in Title I jobs, have been battling this, though, for decades. These are the people who pioneered diagnostic testing in the 1970's. And when I get around a group of well-trained diagnostic elementary school teachers, they can sit down, talk about results, not be shy about the fact that one of them outperformed another, not be shy about the fact the some groups of kids are tougher to teach than others, and not be shy that when you are getting tougher kids you've got to teach in different methods. The isolation in which secondary teachers work has really inhibited that aspect of the profession.

In general, the debate about how we measure performance in education is incredibly crude. We tend to focus narrowly on large-scale math and reading assessments. But what schools and teachers do is much more diverse that can be captured by those assessments. In our work during the DPS/DCTA Pay for Performance Pilot, we conducted an inventory of job types inDenver public schools in 2001. We found that there were more than 450 job assignments among the teaching workforce, and fewer than 40 percent of the teachers in the entire school system could be held individually accountable using the state standards tests administered every year in math and reading in grades three through ten. So when we focus only on the results of large-scale math and reading assessments, the debate becomes limiting and tends to neglect a majority of the workers in schools who are making a difference but who don't have the tools to show it. We need much more agile tests, so that teachers can look at the assessments and say, "These kids really learned what I taught them last year." We don't use tools like that so we end up unable to stand up for the high quality work that we do.

ES: Who needs to take the lead in fixing these structural and organizational problems?

BJ: Right now all of us–teachers unions, school boards and administrators, higher education–are locked in a game of chicken where both sides say, "I'll go forward when you've gotten the conditions I demand right." We've got to stop waiting for conditions to be perfect to engage in reform, and we've got to stop waiting for others to get their work right before we begin doing our part. Part of the story in Denver is that we decided that in the choice between fishing and cutting bait, it was time for all of us–the school district, central office, principals in the pilot schools, the teachers union, the philanthropic community, higher education and technical groups that supported us–to all fish at the same time.

Unions and Reform

ES: What role do you think unions should play in school reform generally?

BJ: Unions should make it part of their professional and organizational goals to lead school reform. To do so they have to accept that the paradigm around accountability and quality has shifted and cannot be rolled back. They need to stop trying to go back to a pre-NCLB, or pre-Goals 2000, or pre-Nation at Risk era and recognize that, even though some of the push for accountability comes from people who are their political enemies, there are also some good ideas there. Teachers unions need to make those good ideas their own and become champions of schools and a profession that thrives only when it serves its community's simple hopes that students will learn. They need to lead the debate on what makes a sound, useful accountability system. To do that, teacher's unions will have to let go of their fear of standardized tests, accountability, rewards and consequences. And when they let go of that fear, they'll have to go farther and recognize that, in fact, since teachers already live in a world of rewards and consequences, it's our job to make rewards and consequences that help our profession thrive rather than to resist them and demand they go away.

ES: Many on the right argue that unions are the major barrier to reform. As someone with a strong commitment to and history in unionism, how do you respond to that characterization?

BJ: There are multiple sides to that argument. Teacher's unions are not necessarily resistant. Many of reform proposals that are put before us are silly and should be rejected. Proposals to redistribute the existing salary among workers, so that some get a lot more while others get a lot less, will never work whether in a unionized workforce or not. Likewise, old-fashioned merit pay proposals, where salary increases are dependent entirely on a principal evaluation are silly, too. Research on private and public sector merit pay systems shows that when you ask the supervisor to identify outstanding performers they over-identify, so within a short period of time this becomes very expensive. Unions should be recognized as right when they resist proposals like that.

Unions are very conservative organizations, although they don't like to admit it. After they go through the radical surge of getting a collective bargaining agreement, they begin to demand that things stay the same. This is, I think, the real challenge in getting alternative compensation systems into urban schools. You have to look at the inherently conservative nature of collective bargaining as a tool to create enduring policy and then say to the workforce, "We're not going to create enduring policy until we know it works. Therefore we're going to experiment and figure out what works before we develop the policy." That's what we did in Denver. We took advantage of the conservative nature of collective bargaining. We entered into an experiment prior to locking everything down in policy. As we experimented we changed what we thought we would do based on what we learned in the experiment. Only when we were satisfied that we had gotten things largely right did we put the system into broader and more durable policy.

Union leaders, and leaders in school districts in general, are often isolated from a wider view of the changing world of policy and practice. Therefore we can accept without proof the totally false assertion that there are no successful examples of alternative teacher compensation systems around the country and that all earlier experiments are proven failures. There are, in fact, hundreds of examples. People in think tanks, people who go to conferences, people who get the kind of professional development you and I get—know that. But folks who work in schools, in district offices and in union halls don't get those kinds of development opportunities, so they don't know.

I think the last reason that we fail as unions to embrace alternative compensation is the most tragic. In the last 25 years, our failure to embrace accountability initiatives has made us fear that we cannot be held accountable for results with students. I can't understand that kind of commitment to failure before the fact. I think that we, as unions and teachers, have felt so victimized by accountability that we have almost betrayed our own mission as a profession. We're the ones that are supposed to make a difference in the learning lives of kids, but we make the facile argument that you can't measure the results of our work in any publicly-reportable way. To that I say, "If I can't measure the results of learning in my classroom, why do I go to work and teach kids every day?"

The people who really confuse me in this debate are people, like Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn, who say they are committed to student learning at all costs but reject the use of any kind of assessment to measure student learning. They treat learning as sacred but magically immeasurable–invisible, almost. As long as opinion leaders like the two of them make the case for the importance of education but argue that its results cannot be measured in a publicly reportable way, they are the worst allies of credible public school systems. They unwittingly give aid to the enemies of public education who view us as an unaccountable monopoly.

ES: Why do teachers feel so victimized by accountability?

BJ: I think that the accountability debate, as it's presented by politicians and policymakers, often does make teachers feel like victims. Legislators and policymakers create irrational consequences and rewards in those systems, consequences and rewards that are out of the individual's control. Nothing makes a person feel more like a victim than being unable to control work- or life-altering consequences. In Colorado, for instance, we have a law requiring a state takeover of schools after 3 years of unsatisfactory performance. Colorado educators feel very victimized by this consequence. In California, they tried giving enormous rewards to everybody in schools that performed really well. But what they created didn't motivate teachers to teach differently; when implemented, these bonuses appeared like a lottery for people who served high-performing, mostly wealthier students. Systems like these make educators feel like victims because, as individuals, the decisions they make, the actions they take, have little meaningful effect on the consequences.

You also can't get around the fact that some of the people advocating accountability–not all of them, but some–really want to dismantle public education. For them, accountability isn't a mechanism for getting students to learn more; it's a mechanism to steal power from the public sector and move it to the private sector. And the result is that people start to see a conspiracy–often a falsely constructed conspiracy–to privatize public education. A stronger profession, though, would break down this tendency through good politics, rather than claim to be victimized by the accountability movement in general. There are plenty of people in the accountability movement–people in the civil rights movements, Republican moderates who believe that good government would provide strong schools to all–who believe that the mission of schools is to educate children and that schools need to live up to that mission. These people should be the natural allies of the teaching profession. When you have people from the civil rights community standing shoulder by shoulder with business leaders who are longtime Republican Party donors you've created a very different [type of] politics, and we in public education should be prepared to engage with them.

Finally, I think that a lot of teachers were taught, in our liberal arts and education training, that poor children were victims of the environments in which they lived and therefore deserved different considerations. That way of thinking about students doesn't work for me. It was my job to get kids to read, no matter what situation they came from. The belief that because the kids have troubled background they're never going to learn is deeply embedded in to the culture of public school teaching and needs to get shaken out.

Looking ahead

ES: How can you change this way of thinking?

BJ: You need to build systems like ProComp to demonstrate that teachers, by and large, succeed in their work. To do that you have to measure student learning using methods that take into account how much kids know when they enter a course of instruction and how much they know when they complete it. Over time teachers will realize that the consequences generated from that kind of data can be fair and that success is in their grasp as individuals. Over time, the profession will take more responsibility for its collective results. Conversely, you're not going to change this way of thinking by imagining a magic system of consequences and rewards in which everyone, in the blink of an eye, works harder and performs above average. As policy leaders we have to resist the temptation to transform public education in an instant. Instead we must forge durable and pragmatic reforms that change results over time.

ES: How would you like to see the teaching profession change for the next generation of teachers?

BJ: I think the most important thing we have to do is to build measurements of student learning that teachers have confidence in–not womb-to-tomb standardized-assessment systems, but measures that give the teachers the ability to show how they make a difference with kids.

The second step is to give people the kind of professional opportunities that encourage teachers to stay in the profession and make a lifelong career out of it. We need to differentiate the workload of teachers so that in your first two or three years you spend more time with groups of adults and less time in the classroom. Similarly, we have to start creating career opportunities for people to advance while remaining in the profession. The teaching profession is based on a simple career model: You can start at age 22 teaching third graders in room 107 and retire 35 years later from the exact same room teaching the next generation of third graders. I do not know many people who think of this career model as a meaningful opportunity. So we need to create more career options for people to maybe teach a portion of the day and work as staff developers, or consultants, or curriculum writers, or intervention specialists, or even on university faculties. In this day and age, well-educated and ambitious people—the kind of people we want in the teaching profession—want a more versatile and dynamic career model. Policymakers should strive to create it.

To me, those two things are more important by a long shot than changing the way teachers are paid. But I also think that, if you really do those two things well, teachers would be paid differently in the end anyway.

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