Opinion
Education Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: Do Teacher-Pay Incentives Work?

November 07, 2006 6 min read

On Oct. 25, readers’ questions on teacher-pay incentives were answered by a panel that included Tricia Coulter, the director of the Education Commission of the States’ Teaching Quality and Leadership Institute, in Denver; Sabrina W.M. Laine, the director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, in Washington; and Ben Schaefer, the program manager of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Question: In my experience, star teaching candidates make employment decisions based on factors such as excellence of the work environment and administrative support, almost never on an isolated bonus or incentive. What groups are most attracted by incentives? Novice teachers? Minority candidates? Do we really know that incentives are the determining factor in accepting an offer?

Read the full transcript of this chat.

Schaefer: Targeted incentives can be effective in filling specific needs or in attracting minority candidates. But many high-quality candidates will choose not to apply, or will leave in the first few years of employment, if they are not given the supportive working environment they need to be successful. Until we broaden our discussion of incentives to include administrative support, opportunities for professional growth, and time for collaboration, we will not attract and retain the quality teachers our schools need.

Question: Massachusetts school districts are just beginning to explore pay incentives. One concern is how to implement an incentive so that it will not result in harming the collegiality among teachers. Can pay incentives be incorporated while building professional learning communities?

Coulter: Absolutely they can. Diversified compensation programs should never be “stand alone” strategies. They should be part of a larger system aimed at improving teacher retention and student achievement. The creation of learning communities, implementing a teacher- mentoring program, using teacher evaluations for diagnostic purposes to inform the type and content of professional development needed should all be part of any learning community. The pay-incentive component is an additional motivational tool and a way of overtly rewarding or encouraging continuous improvement in a teacher’s ability to have an impact on student learning. Incentives such as school-based pay or group-based pay are looked at as a way to increase collaboration and a “community” feel. In these systems, student achievement is aggregated to the school level. When targets are met, all eligible employees (sometimes extending to noninstructional staff, as well) receive some type of bonus. While this is a popular system, there aren’t data indicating that it is a more effective strategy for encouraging collegiality than individual-based pay.

Question: Is a merit-pay program or stipend being considered to encourage veteran teachers to accept difficult assignments?

Laine: There are several recent examples of merit pay or other financial incentives specifically targeted toward recruiting experienced teachers into hard-to-staff schools or subject areas. There are also examples of initiatives aimed at recruiting retired teachers back into the classroom to address hard-to-staff areas of need. A recent Wisconsin initiative, for example, seeks to provide an additional $5,000 for nine years as an incentive for teaching by national-board-certified and master educators in high-needs schools. Teachers in Springfield, Mass., recently approved a contract that includes merit pay. Experienced teachers with at least a master’s degree, seven years of teaching experience, and a 97 percent attendance rate at work will be eligible to apply for two positions that fall under this merit-pay plan. It includes both higher pay and requirements that the teachers accept difficult assignments in struggling schools and mentor less-experienced teachers. In South Carolina, meanwhile, retired teachers can participate in the Teacher and Employee Retention program, which allows them to work for up to five years as a retiree while accumulating a retirement annuity and drawing salary as a full-time employee. These teachers are channeled into critical-need areas.

Question: Why would anyone expect teacher-incentive programs that pay peanuts, when compared with the incentives and bonuses available in other fields, to produce more than marginal effects?

Coulter: In many programs, incentives are calculated as a percentage of base salary, so whether the amount would be considered “peanuts” is relative. The absolute amount may be smaller than in other fields, but the percentage of base salary may be similar. In the Denver ProComp system, a teacher can earn specified, percentage bonuses in each of multiple categories, which can add up to a large overall percentage of base pay.

Question: How would you structure incentive programs so that teacher mentoring and school improvement efforts are not hindered? It seems to me that if you reward top-performing teachers, they might be reluctant to share their experience and “tricks of the trade.”

Schaefer: Teacher collaboration is important to improving instruction. Creating an incentive program that pits teacher against teacher will not work for students. If I were designing an incentive program, I would reward teachers for their performance. But that performance would include professional growth, student growth, and the taking on of roles and responsibilities such as mentoring and school improvement.

Question: Are pay-for-performance programs being used to replace overall teacher raises? Even though pay for performance is used in the business sector, what is the rationale for applying it to a process-driven arena like teaching?

Coulter: Districts using pay-for-performance plans still have overall raises to base pay as part of their compensation systems. Pay-for-performance bonuses or incentives are often a percentage of base salary. They are also incorporated into the structure of advancement through teacher levels or tiers. The rationale for linking financial rewards to student achievement is that it represents an attempt to make overt the ultimate goal of any teacher: improving student learning. This is why pay-for-performance plans include some outcome measure of student learning or achievement. While it is a complex area to assess, this is considered one “product” of teaching.

Question: How would merit pay for inclusion teachers work? They certainly aren’t going to have impressive test scores with special education kids in their rooms, even if they are dynamic teachers.

Schaefer: First, merit pay for all teachers should take into account student growth, as opposed to overall student performance. Second, merit-pay systems should not base compensation on a single test. The success of a student is not due to one teacher. Groups of teachers influence a student’s growth, especially in schools where teachers collaborate. Measures of student growth should be one component of merit pay, along with roles and responsibilities, professional growth, and so on.

Question: There is evidence that incentives improve teacher-retention rates, but is there any evidence that they improve student learning?

Laine: There is little solid evidence that financial incentives, in and of themselves, improve student learning. The connection more commonly made is that financial incentives can have a positive impact on the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff or at-risk schools. To be able to make the conclusion you seek, comparison data on the growth or impact on student outcomes would need to be gathered on groups of teachers receiving financial incentives as well as groups not receiving them. A lot of this information is not now available, either because incentive programs have not developed a mechanism to track it, or because most incentive programs are still too new. One program that has been tracking student outcomes is the Benwood Initiative in Hamilton County, Tenn. A combination of financial incentives to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers has been in place there since 2001, and, based on recent evaluation results, average student reading scores in the district has risen from 77 percent in 2003 to 89 percent in 2005.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Do Teacher-Pay Incentives Work?

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