Tapping Into What Makes Teachers Tick

Few or no gains come from performance pay incentives for teachers according to a report published last month by a US education think tank. It says that pay alone is insufficient to motivate teachers to teach differently and improve student achievement. Pay incentives ignore what teachers care most about.

The report found that what most teachers desire is the know-how to teach their subjects well and autonomy and supports to best meet the needs of their students. It says that expertise in teaching must be rewarded in ways that move beyond recruitment bonuses or pay for improved student test scores.

Performance pay schemes fail because they are rarely grounded on what high-quality research indicates are the kinds of teacher incentives that lead to school excellence and equity. Large-scale studies suggest that working conditions are far more important than bonuses in persuading teachers to stay or leave their classrooms. The most important working conditions go well beyond the issues of time, class size, and the length of the workday.

National teacher turnover survey data show that teachers who leave because of job dissatisfaction do so for a variety of reasons that can be addressed: low salaries, poor support from school administrators, a lack of student motivation, a lack of teacher influence over decision-making, and student discipline problems. However, current policies focused on performance pay rarely recognize these realities.

The report also found that financial incentives are insufficient to encourage teachers to teach in low performing schools. Indeed, the report cites one study which shows that these are the least important incentives. One survey found that factors such as strong principal leadership, a collegial staff with a shared teaching philosophy, access to adequate resources such as libraries and technology, and a supportive and active parent community are far more powerful determinants than salary in enticing teachers to move to high-need schools. Other research also found that not having to teach scripted lessons, additional preparation time, and lower class sizes are important in keeping teachers in low performing schools.

It also found that high-stakes accountability such as reporting school results and rewards and sanctions based on school results create perverse incentives for experienced and effective teachers to not teach in schools that serve low achieving students.

The authors conclude that additional pay for teaching in high-needs schools will always only be a partial solution. Other incentives tied to working conditions and professional opportunities will be equally important – possibly more so. Based upon a wide range of evidence, these “opportunities to teach effectively” standards would include:

• Principals who cultivate and embrace teacher leadership;
• Time and tools for teachers to learn from each other;
• Specialized preparation and resources for the highest needs schools, subjects, and students;
• Elimination of out-of-field teaching assignments;
• Teaching loads that are differentiated based on the diversity and mobility of students taught;
• Opportunities to take risks;
• Integration of academic, social and health support services for students; and
• Safe and well-maintained school buildings.

One essential support that seems to matter most for effective teaching is collaboration. Strategies to increase collaboration between teachers and the spreading of best practice are missing from virtually all of the currently in-vogue strategies to improve teaching.

Teachers have long been organizationally “siloed” from each other. The authors point out that strategic compensation could be used to reward teachers who collaborate, not compete, with their colleagues in helping them teach for more effectively. These incentives can support hybrid roles for teachers, peer evaluation, increased autonomy, extended time for meaningful collaboration, and needs-based professional development.

In addition, policies should advance strategic compensation systems that offer enticements for effective teachers, as teams, to move to and remain in high-need schools for at least five years. This is important to ensure that high-need schools have a stable teaching faculty to pursue complex, long-term improvement strategies.

The authors suggest that government could place a much higher priority on funding programs that place a higher value on rewarding teachers who not just produce student learning gains, but those who help their colleagues improve their practice and the academic achievement of those who they collectively teach.

Trevor Cobbold

Barnett Berry and Jon Eckert, Creating Teacher Incentives for School Excellence and Equity, National Education Policy Center, School of Education, University of Colorado, Boulder, January.

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