Assessment Opinion

How Should We Motivate Teachers? The Debate over Incentives

By Anthony Cody — December 07, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There is a new blog on the EdWeek block, On Performance, authored by Seattle principal Justin Baeder. The latest post takes on the contentious issue of economic incentives in education. I agree with the author that these issues are important, but I am struggling with where he goes with them.

For starters, he proposes:

...it is intuitive to people in most industries that one's pay should be commensurate with one's contribution to the organization. If you don't produce results as an insurance salesperson, a manager, or an attorney, you'll find yourself out of money or out of a job.

I will agree with this, but the trouble is, with the exception of sales positions, most professions do NOT rely on incremental pay associated with production goals. Most economic incentives offered in education tend to tie compensation to one very narrow measure of that contribution - the amount test scores rise. That creates very big problems, as there are so many other contributions we make as teachers that are devalued as a result.

Mr. Baeder goes on to acknowledge that the teaching profession, like many other public sectors of the economy, has made some trade-offs between security and compensation, but suggests that since life-time employment is no longer the norm,

Accordingly, we can no longer structure the profession on the assumption that all educators are "lifers" with uniformly noble, intrinsic motivation. Career-changers represent a rapidly growing segment of the teaching workforce, and if we pay no attention to the range of factors that motivate people, we risk creating perverse incentives.

So according to this, we have people choosing to teach for shorter periods of time, and they are less likely to have noble, intrinsic motivations. So what are these perverse incentives we must fight?

”...the lack of a direct link between performance and compensation inevitably creates an economic incentive toward mediocrity.”

Ok, so we have traditionally relied on noble intrinsic motivations, but as we get more short-timers, they may lack this, and we must shift to pay based more on outcomes lest we encourage mediocrity.

Then Mr. Baeder says:

I don't mean that teachers will work harder and do a better job if we dangle the carrot of bonus pay in front of them, but remain mediocre in the absence of a merit pay scheme (indeed, there is so far no evidence that this works).

Then why bother? If there is no evidence that teachers will work harder and do a better job if they are paid bonuses, then why go through the exercise?

Mr. Baeder explains:

For many, many people, the link between their work (input) and their compensation (output) is extremely important. Being focused on a few, specific goals, and having a tangible mandate (such as a compensation link) can be very powerful.

So which is it?
You cannot have it both ways. Either we will work harder with a tangible mandate for outcomes or we won’t. Very confusing!

Then we come to a slightly more transparent aspect of the argument.

But, you might say, very few people who feel this way are in education at the moment. Exactly. As Eric Hanushek has said, changing compensation is largely about changing the workforce, not motivating current educators to try harder.
You might also say "I don't want people to be educators if they're motivated by money. I want teachers who are in education for 'the right reasons.'" It seems, though, that results matter more than intentions in today's climate - as indeed they should when students' futures are on the line.

So here we have the real goal of this entire strategy laid bare

. Proponents actually WANT to shift the motivational base of the teaching profession away from its noble intrinsic foundation, because this apparently interferes with the results orientation that will yield optimal student outcomes (test scores).

Clearly I am highly suspicious of this approach. But I appreciate that we are getting clearer about the objectives behind this project. The goal is to change the workforce teaching our students. And economic incentives for test scores will help accomplish that goal, I have little doubt. If you make teaching more about test scores and less about the many other reasons many of us chose the profession, you will indeed select a different sort of teacher. I do not think this is a change that will benefit our students, or even our economy in the long run, so I am going to suggest we would be better off sticking with a workforce driven by noble intrinsic motivations than pursuing the mercenary career-changers we are being offered in exchange.

What do you think? Would our students be better off with teachers motivated by economic incentives for better results? Or should we stick with more intrinsic motivations for our teachers?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.