Recruitment & Retention Commentary

Teacher Incentives, or Teaching Incentives?

By Patrick R. Riccards — November 04, 2009 6 min read

In our current zeal to reward “excellent” teachers, are we jeopardizing truly excellent teaching?

For some time now, we have been hearing that boosts in teacher pay are the solution to struggling schools. In his book written during the height of his failed Edison Schools experience, the education entrepreneur Christopher Whittle suggested that good teachers should be earning six-figure incomes. The economist Eric A. Hanushek of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University has made similar calls more recently. And Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is seeking to raise salaries for New York City’s veteran teachers to well over $100,000 a year.

The sentiment behind such thinking is strong. Good classroom teachers should be paid more. Teaching in today’s K-12 environment is more demanding than it ever has been. Effective teachers are part educator, motivational speaker, social worker, job counselor, therapist, and miracle worker. As we have raised the stakes and increased accountability, we’ve put the weight of these school “improvements” on the shoulders of our teachers.

But in seeking to transform this sentiment into policy, we have fallen into an all-too-familiar trap. Problems are solved with dollars. We can post student gains on state assessments if only teachers are given extra amounts in their paychecks. Educators in struggling schools can close long-standing achievement gaps if they are provided their bag of silver. The only thing holding back millions of dedicated teachers in efforts to improve their craft is a few extra dollars and the promise of being “incentivized.”

In our great “race to the top,” we toe the line, believing that the field is one of great mediocrity. Teachers must have a financial incentive to do an above-average job. The concern is so acute that we must force states—with the strings attached to a $4 billion stimulus carrot—to do something, anything, to get teachers to improve.

Within this embrace of incentivism is an underlying belief that not all teachers are equal. We seek to reward those who demonstrate their effectiveness through quantitative student achievement. Reading, math, and many science teachers will soon swim in the “excellent” educator pool because of their state-validated test-score gains. But what about teachers in social studies, foreign languages, and art? What about those who teach special education, career and technical education, and English-language learning? Can a teacher be truly excellent if there isn’t a state assessment attached to the subject matter?

Of course, but apparently not under our current system. These are the rabbit holes we face as we look to anchor federal teacher-quality policy to the issue of incentivism. The trouble begins when we set up teachers as the problem with student achievement, and not part of the solution. We look at the numbers and see that, historically, student performance remains relatively stagnant—particularly, the disturbingly large and unmoving achievement gap between minority and low-income students and white and more-affluent students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We’ve thrown more money into the system, and no change. We’ve added accountability and assessments, no movement. We’re now adding common-core standards, with few believing that will truly get at the heart of the matter. That leaves one target for our ire—the teachers.

When the issue of merit pay comes around, talk usually focuses on two ideas. The first is exemplified by Denver’s ProComp pay-for-performance plan, an innovative effort that, according to advocates, “links teacher pay to the school district’s instructional mission.” The second is found in the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a brainchild of former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars piloting merit-pay efforts under the radar for years before President Barack Obama picked the idea up as an answer to campaign promises.

In our zeal to find proof positive that merit pay works, we have overlooked important components on which both ProComp and TIF are built. The first is a strong partnership with teachers. ProComp has been successful because the Denver school district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association built it together. Such collaboration ensures that good education policy is rooted in good instructional practice. ProComp succeeds because teachers are invested in the system, not unwitting pawns forced to choose between the carrot and the stick in school improvement.

Both the federal and Denver initiatives also recognize that there is more to incentive pay than “teachers plus test scores equals bonus checks.” Merit pay is not the reward for student test scores, it is the incentive for effective teachers to identify, share, and model best practices. It provides school districts the opportunity to catalogue what works in the classroom, providing real-life models for in-service professional development, while identifying and cultivating mentors for new and at-risk teachers. Ultimately, the payoff for schools is gaining the components for building a better instructional mousetrap. The improved student test scores are an added bonus.

As states fall over themselves to implement teacher merit-pay provisions in efforts to please Race to the Top Fund grant-proposal reviewers, where does that really leave teaching quality? What can we learn from the past to truly impact and improve instructional practice?

First, we must involve teachers. Officials of the U.S. Department of Education, the Teacher Incentive Fund, and virtually every state department of education need to sit down with teachers (and teachers’ unions) to set goals, determine measurements, and develop an incentive plan that works for all stakeholders and drives lasting improvement.

Second, we must develop a broader, clearer definition of what we are incentivizing. Do only math and reading teachers get merit pay? Does every teacher get a bump in pay because the school improved? Do we use the money to acknowledge effective teaching in at-risk schools or in hard-to-staff academic subjects, or does it all just go to elementary reading teachers in well-heeled suburban schools?

Third, capturing, cataloging, and using effective practices should be non-negotiable. Effective instruction should be captured on video, shared during in-service days, and regularly dissected with the school faculty, just as a football coach routinely reviews the team’s game film. Ultimately, teachers should be incentivized for how they help improve the practice of their fellow educators.

Finally, we must ensure that we do not drive a wedge between effective teachers and effective teaching. Student test scores are just one measure, albeit a powerful one, for determining success in the classroom. But is a teacher who raises scores by five points in a college-prep classroom “better” than one who boosts achievement at a historic dropout factory by four? Can teachers with smartboards, the latest textbooks, and an active parent corps really be held to the same quantitative measurement as the teacher in a struggling school with decades-old books and a shortage of desks? Where do professional development and mentoring fit? Can we ever truly measure excellence in instruction before we have equity in education?

The resources provided through the Race to the Top Fund and other initiatives provide enormous impetus for states and school districts to change how they teach, assess, and measure success. But we must remember that incentive pay is merely a tactic, not an outcome. If our goal is better instruction and higher levels of learning, we need to invest in both the teacher and teaching. Until we identify and catalog why some teachers and their students are excelling, we can never replicate their path to success and improve public education as a whole. And that should be our true endgame.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Teacher Incentives, or Teaching Incentives?

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