Commentary

Incentives, Not Tests, Are Needed To Restructure the Teaching Profession

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Teaching is an imperiled profession. Recent research indicates that at every point of choice--from selection of a college major through the decision to remain in or leave the classroom--the most academically able eschew the teaching profession. Moreover, while in recent years declining student enrollments have meant a teacher surplus, shortages in such critical areas as mathematics and science are already upon us. Within a decade, more general shortages are likely, due to a drastic decline in the number of education-school graduates (down 50 percent from 1972 to 1981), and to the retirement of a sizable portion of an aging teacher workforce. To be sure, effective teaching is measured by more than academic ability reflected in scores on standardized tests. Yet parents in most communities desire for their children bright, articulate teachers with a strong grasp of subject matter.

To date, the response of policymakers to the decline of the teaching profession has been largely symbolic, emphasizing regulatory measures that misconstrue the problem. Mandating competency tests for prospective teachers and otherwise tightening licensing and certification requirements may screen out the least academically able teacher candidates, but such actions will not contribute to the more important task of attracting bright, committed young people to teaching, nor will they sustain them throughout a career in the classroom.

Furthermore, to raise entry standards considerably will serve by itself only to induce a teacher shortage. One study estimated, for example, that a requirement to score above the median on tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the National Teachers Examination would exclude between 70 to 75 percent of all prospective teachers. In fact, if those scoring below the lower fifth of all students on the sat were denied admission to teacher-education programs, approximately 35 percent of those enrolled would be excluded. (This, by the way, is a strategy that the chief state school officers have recently recommended in a draft report as a means of raising teacher salaries through market pressure. I'm not sanguine about the prospects. A more expedient response to the threat of teacher shortages is to waive entry requirements rather than to raise salaries.)

Policymakers at all levels must take steps to make teaching more attractive as an occupation. And since the spate of recent state regulations don't address the problem, more attention must be given to incentives. We must develop an incentive-based teacher policy system, which, over time, can restructure the teaching occupation, making it competitive once again. In an era of fiscal austerity and public accountability, however, we must utilize incentives selectively, tying them to indicators of quality whenever possible. Specifics of an incentive-based approach should be tailored to individual circumstances in particular locales, but there are several general issues to consider.

Policymakers must carefully weigh what purposes incentives might serve. There are several, including recruiting high-caliber candidates; identifying and rewarding excellence; retaining effective teachers in the classroom; encouraging professional development; and providing an efficient, equitable distribution of teachers within a school system.

Efforts to recruit teachers with scholarship- and loan-forgiveness programs are already under way. In several areas, notably the state of Tennessee and the Charlotte-Mecklenberg School District in North Carolina, "master-teacher" schemes have been proposed as a long-range strategy for retaining good teachers. Other districts have utilized sabbaticals and small-grant programs for teacher-initiated projects to stimulate professional development. (A notable example of a small-grant program is the Exxon Education Foundation's Impact II program in New York City.) And many jurisdictions announce "teacher of the year" awards with fanfare, a practice whose value could be increased by making rewards more plentiful and varied. Also, some districts, including those in Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami, now offer extra pay to teachers willing to work in inner-city schools.

Given the lack of opportunities for career advancement in teaching and the profession's meager start-to-end salary ratio of one to two, as well as the rising average age of the nation's teachers, incentives that help good teachers "stay fresh" over a career are particularly important.

Incentive size is a second major issue. How much of what sort of incentive is necessary to attract, sustain, and retain teachers? On this matter, economists should be able to assist policymakers, but there is little information to draw upon.

A number of locales, though, have experimented with pay increases. Los Angeles has offered an 11-percent increase for teaching in the city center. Houston offered an initial bonus of $800 on a $16,000 starting salary for mathematics and science teachers, increasing it in 1982-83 to $2,000. Since Houston also offers a $2,000 bonus for teaching in its inner-city schools, beginning mathematics and science teachers there can now earn $20,000, a salary that is 25 percent above the district's base. In England, a series of national reforms in the 1970's provided so-called "school-of-exceptional-difficulty" allowances of 5 percent to 10 percent above the base for teachers working in urban schools.

The evidence available on these experiments suggests that modest salary incentives in the 10-percent range affect the supply, turnover, and distribution of teachers only marginally. The influence of salary incentives on teacher quality is even less clear. Ideally, we would like to know something about the relationship between marginal increments of salary and the behavior of effective teachers or promising teacher candidates. Lacking such knowledge, we must experiment as Houston is doing, adjusting incentives, then observing their effects.

Third, in the face of limited resources and increased pressure for accountability, policymakers must consider how best to link incentives to performance. The prevailing pattern in education links incentives to status (such as gaining tenure or earning a master's degree), not to performance. Such a system has some obvious advantages. It is easy to operate, equitable, and harmonious. All teachers are treated alike in a perfectly unambiguous fashion, preventing discord and making administration quite simple. However, these advantages have a price: When the exemplary and the incompetent receive the same rewards, excellence goes unrewarded.

But the history of what is often called "merit pay" in education and in other fields suggests that it seldom works as planned. Either merit increases are routinely distributed to all or extraneous factors such as favoritism and political control enter, producing resentment among those who must work together on a daily basis. The key, of course, is to develop valid, objective criteria with behavioral or other indicators for performance. While this task is technically possible, the costs of systematically collecting such information are great.

Another alternative is to use a nominations process for the distribution of awards. A panel of teachers, administrators, and others could develop criteria and make award decisions. Such a plan would at least serve to recognize outstanding teachers, without introducing the adverse consequences of merit pay. The performance base for incentives will always be a difficult problem, but localities should begin to consider schemes to introduce links between performance and incentives.

A uniform salary scale tied to status instead of performance also inhibits school systems from selectively introducing incentives to meet delimited problems, such as those currently posed by the shortage of mathematics and science teachers and the inability of inner-city and rural schools to attract and hold teachers. Because we cannot afford to raise all salaries to deal with these problems, the solutions of hiring unqualified teachers, reassigning teachers to part-time work outside their areas of certification, and increasing class size all reduce the competence of the teaching force.

The introduction of pay differentials would likely produce some ill will among teachers, raising questions about the value of one subject as opposed to another. But salary differentials have long been accepted in other occupations, including university teaching. The stakes are high enough today to warrant at least experimenting with this idea.

Another issue concerns the relative merits of individual versus collective incentives. Most discussion of incentives has focused primarily on those aimed at recruiting and retaining individual teachers, but much recent research has stressed the school as the critical unit of learning and reform. This and other literature also suggest that effective teaching is dependent on the context in which it occurs. In fact, the various characteristics of schools probably are as potent an influence on teacher effectiveness as are teachers' personal qualities or the training they receive. Perhaps, then, attention should be paid to incentives operating at the school or department level (such as summer employment to work on school-improvement efforts or release time for cooperative curriculum planning), which might augment individual income while encouraging collective responses to professional matters.

Incentives also offer an opportunity to reallocate existing resources. Certain school districts are beginning to explore ways to alter the distribution and balance of rewards and incentives to make teaching more attractive. For example, the San Francisco school district currently offers teachers a choice between class size and salary. Teachers who accept larger classes are paid more. And the Ogden, Utah, school district has recently shifted from a nine-month to an 11-month salary for teachers, increasing the average annual salary by a substantial amount. In return, teachers accepted larger classes and engaged in curriculum development and other professional work during summer months. There is more room for innovation within existing budget constraints than might be expected and any district could begin the search for alternatives immediately, without passage of a school bond or additional state funds.

The removal of disincentives should also be considered. In addition to the absence of attractions, teaching has features that discourage capable people from entering it and staying in it. Some contend, for example, that state licensing and certification laws prevent capable liberal-arts graduates from teaching because they have not taken the requisite courses in schools of education. The same applies to knowledgeable people in business and in the community who, their lack of "credentials" notwithstanding, might teach part time.

Finally, there is the question of who should determine and distribute incentives. One choice here is between centralized and decentralized decisionmaking. If there is widespread agreement about a problem that affects the members of a large jurisdiction, or if individual rights and compliance with the law are involved, then centralization is preferable. A state, for example, could establish a scholarship program for prospective teachers (as in fact several states recently have done for prospective mathematics and science teachers), or it could supply grants to local districts to invent ways to attract and retain teachers. On the other hand, if responsiveness to a variety of local conditions is desirable, then a more decentralized approach has appeal. A school district could establish a centrally administered program to involve teachers in program development or could supply small grants to teachers to invent their own curricula.

A second choice involves the use of public- versus private-sector incentives. Given the growing interest in bringing the private sector into school-reform efforts, public incentives--such as tax breaks--could be used to encourage corporations to provide part-time employment for teachers or to make their employees available for part-time teaching duties. Also, the growing number of savvy superintendents who are cultivating networks with influential community and corporate leaders can use such contacts to address the fundamental problems of teacher quality.

I am under no illusion that public policy alone can restore the satisfactions of teaching. Such a matter lies beyond policy's reach. Yet for all its instrumental value, policy also serves expressive purposes and can articulate our ideals. There is today no more vital role for educational policy than to affirm the value of teaching and the importance of holding teachers to high standards of commitment and conduct. Policies linked to a rhetoric of excellence that emphasize rewards and incentives can make a critical contribution to the renewal of teaching as a deeply fulfilling and uniquely valuable enterprise.

But we must depart from the status quo; we must begin to broadly reconfigure the teaching occupation if it is to remain viable. And we must begin now.

Vol. 02, Issue 32, Page 24, 19

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