Teaching Profession Opinion

Do Career Pathways for Teachers Really Improve Instruction?

By Cristina Duncan Evans — December 10, 2014 4 min read
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Common sense tells us that money is an effective way to motivate people. I will never say no to more money. This is a pretty straightforward facet of my personality, and it seems that a preference for more money rather than less isn’t unique to just me. (See: Capitalism).

When Baltimore City created career pathways options four years years ago, I jumped at the chance to apply for higher pay and more responsibilities. The new contract was lauded as an innovative way to motivate teachers to improve their practice, and to reward the instruction of excellent educators (read more about the new contract’s implementation in this Ed Week article from earlier this year).

In the four years since I became one of Baltimore City’s Model Teachers, my job satisfaction and the quality of my instruction have both increased. I seem to be a success story of the new contract and anecdotal proof that monetary incentives can reward strong teaching and inspire teachers to improve. But in actuality, money wasn’t the only factor that improved my performance, and my experience has actually convinced me that teacher pay incentives aren’t the great mechanism for improving teaching that they seem to be.

First, I’ll be honest about what I consider to be an important but inherent flaw in Baltimore’s Model Teacher process. Based on my own experience and the experiences of my colleagues, the application unintentionally makes it easier to earn model status when you teach in a low-poverty school. A lot of the application relies on evidence that your students are doing deep and engaging work and that you as a teacher are moving them beyond grade-level standards. Since I’ve moved to a low-poverty school (shortly before I applied to be a Model Teacher) I can count on more of my kids to come to class regularly, on-time, and prepared to engage in challenging lessons. It’s true that great teachers and excellent schools certainly can move low-income students to amazing heights. However, it’s just plain harder when you’re working in a context where students have more struggles. It’s easier for me to push my students in my current school because many of them come to class already believing in the importance of college and understanding the hard work it will take them to get there. This allows me to thoughtfully experiment and be ambitious with my instruction, and every day I’m reminded that I’m privileged in this way.

However, along with the change in my students’ income, my instruction has improved over the last four years because of a shift in how I was managed. My school’s culture gives me three motivators that have kept me focused on improvement rather than stagnating. Those three motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Author Daniel Pink has given an enlightening TED Talk about how these three factors, more than money, can motivate people to improve—his work is illuminating for districts considering policies to improve teacher effectiveness.

First, Pink identifies autonomy as a way to inspire people to think creatively and come up with solutions. In an education context, autonomy would mean that teachers are given the freedom to make important decisions over their classrooms and instruction. My school has very high expectations for teachers, but very little micro-managing. I’m free to create and teach my own curriculum, as long as it aligns with the Maryland and Common Core State Standards. Being given this freedom as first year teacher would have been a disaster, but as I began my fifth year, I was pedagogically ready to create content rich units that keep me (and most of my students) excited about history. A career pathway should include not just salary increases, but earned autonomy for teachers who have demonstrated excellent professional judgement. Our district’s motto for effective instruction is Plan, Teach, Reflect and Adjust, but the planning and reflection don’t mean as much when teachers don’t have the freedom to make significant instructional decisions.

Mastery and purpose are the other two factors that Pink discusses as ways to inspire and motivate high performance. Mastery in this sense means the desire to get better and better while purpose gives us the sense that our work is connected to a larger goal. Teachers get these reinforcements somewhat informally and irregularly. We admire each other’s skill, and seek to emulate our teaching role models, but beyond National Board certification there are few dedicated programs that elevate and examine highly skilled teaching. As for purpose, every school in America is probably festooned with banners that proclaim the importance of our work, but we also get messages that undermine that sense of purpose. Teachers of non-tested subjects in particular sometimes struggle to justify their importance in the face of decreasing budgets and instructional time.

Like I said, I’ll never say no to more money. I hope to remain a Model Teacher for as long as I teach, and having Model Teacher status makes remaining in the classroom for the rest of my career a financially viable option. But when visitors to my classroom see highly effective instruction coming from a Model Teacher, they’re oversimplifying the issue by thinking that a career pathway alone is going to raise the level of instruction in the district. We need to acknowledge and begin being more honest about the fact that poverty can create tough challenges to great instruction. We also need teachers to be treated as professionals and give them the freedom to work independently on solving an important but complicated problem. Career pathways are an important step forward, and they keep excellent educators in the classroom, but as for motivating improvement, we need to rely more on teachers’ intrinsic motivation and emphasize autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.