Incentive or merit pay for teachers is based on a straightforward concept: teachers who succeed at improving student performance should be paid more than those who don’t.

Of course, successful programs clearly define achievement expectations for teachers with teachers—based on their students' past performance accounting for factors such as poverty or special needs that affect how well students perform. Around the world a growing number of countries are adopting teacher performance pay programs after years (even decades) of increasing education spending with no corresponding improvement in student achievement.

Examples of successful programs that have improved student achievement up to more than a full grade level in a single school year—importantly the achievement of students from disadvantaged backgrounds—can be found across the globe, including in South America, India, Israel, England, and across the United States. Unfortunately, Denver’s program does not appear to be one of them.

A decade ago voters approved a $25 million annual property tax increase to fund the ProComp program in Denver Public Schools, which was supposed to reward teachers for improved student achievement and help retain talented teachers. It turns out taxpayers were sold a bill of goods.

Nearly all teachers received bonuses, even though more than one in five of them (22 percent) were deemed ineffective. Colorado’s Arthur Kane reports:

Critics say the ProComp tax increase was always about collecting more tax revenue for the district than rewarding teachers who truly help students.

“It was sold to teachers in a different way than it was sold to the public,” said Mark Barlock, a former DPS teacher who led the fight against ProComp in 2005 and now teaches outside the district. “Teachers were told, ‘You understand this is how to get more taxpayer money for DPS, and we decide how to use the money we get.’” …

DPS second-grade teacher Anna Cafaro spoke out against ProComp in 2005 and refused to sign up for the program. She said she now receives several emails a year telling her how much money she is missing out on, but she doesn’t believe the bonus system is making teachers better so won’t accept the extra pay.

“It replaced one system with another, but it’s not true merit pay,” she said, adding teachers now find ways to meet certain education goals, but those may not help students learn. “It hasn’t improved instruction. It hasn’t increased scores. It doesn’t guarantee good teaching. It’s joke.”

Since the 2006-07 school year, the proportion of teachers receiving incentive pay bonuses, which can be as high as $30,000, has soared from 40 percent to 90 percent. This school year the average incentive pay bonuses for the district’s 5,300 teachers will average more than $7,000.

Denver taxpayers should demand that a real incentive pay program be implemented instead. Successful models here in the U.S. include the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) and Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT program—both of which have had demonstrable success at improving achievement among students from disadvantaged backgrounds.