Studies show that top-notch teaching talent is the biggest factor in a student's academic success, and Senator Michael Bennet, the former head of Denver Public Schools, thinks it's high time we start reflecting that in teachers' salaries. "We haven't changed the way we pay teachers in this country since we had a labor market that discriminated against women," Bennet says. But reform efforts almost always end in gridlock among teachers unions, school districts, and residents. In a rare accord in Denver, though, residents voted in a $25 million tax increase to fund ProComp, an incentive program that passed with 78% union support. Under ProComp, teachers can opt in for any number of annual bonuses, such as $2,403 for serving in disadvantaged schools with high turnover rates or making strides on standardized tests. They can boost base salaries by earning advanced degrees or positive evaluations. So far, incentives are averaging $6,500 and 75% of teachers are pursuing professional-development courses. Reports show that recruitment and retention rates are rising in high-need schools, and, since 2006, Denver has had larger gains in student achievement than any other district in Colorado. "The goal from the beginning was to better align compensation with the actual goals we're trying to achieve with students," says Shayne Spalten, ProComp's chief HR officer. We give that sort of thinking an A+.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.