Denver right on teachers' pay
Arizona Republic
Dec. 2, 2005

One of the more common pleas heard in debates over public education these days is the call to pay our K-12 teachers more.

The argument is very straightforward: "You get what you pay for; and if we want better teachers, we need to pay them higher wages."

Fundamentally I don't disagree. My wife is a K-12 teacher. Both she and I would love to see her salary increase.

But beyond that basic agreement on the objective, I suspect my views depart from those of many current Arizona educators. One city in the United States, however, is now traveling down the path I'd like to see more follow.

The voters in the Denver Public School District, which is essentially contiguous with the city limits of Denver, voted to tax themselves more to increase teacher pay - but not the pay of all teachers.

The current teacher compensation system, as practiced in Arizona and almost everywhere else in the United States, is essentially the same model we've historically seen in most assembly-line manufacturing plants. You earn more by staying on the job longer.

There may be slight variations for special skills or advanced degrees, but the variations are slight. In spite of Arizona's attempts to insert a "pay for performance" component into teacher salaries, things really haven't changed much. The system is very resistant to change or experimentation.

Thank God for Denver.

The new Denver system is very different and very revolutionary. Individual teachers will earn higher salaries when their students consistently demonstrate higher academic performance gains, when teaching more difficult subjects and when teaching in more difficult environments.

If you have the necessary academic credentials and teach math or science in middle or high school, you earn more. Teach English-language learners, you earn more. Your students consistently show more academic progress than their peers, you earn more. You teach in a school in a tougher part of town, you earn more.

Under the old system, teachers in Denver schools, those with a master's degree and 13 years of experience, topped out at roughly $54,000 a year. Under the new system, a teacher who qualified for all the pay bonuses could earn as much as $80,000 to $90,000 annually.

That's definitely a salary high enough not only to attract more talent but also to keep it in the classroom longer and lead it to where it is needed most.

This kind of compensation philosophy doesn't sound at all strange to most of us who work in the non-unionized corporate world. But it's a huge shift for the union-contract-dominated world of public education. What is especially heartening about what is happening in Denver is that the teachers union endorsed the plan and worked to convince voters to approve it.

There are certainly teachers in Denver who don't like it, but their union is working with Denver Public School administrators to implement this strategy.

We can only hope some Arizona school districts and their teachers will be willing to take a leap of faith and embrace something similar.

David Howell has been a Valley resident since 1986. He and his wife live in Phoenix. Howell can be reached at