ED. Magazine

Right on the Money

By Elaine McArdle

Despite repeated efforts to reward teachers based on performance — both theirs and their students’ — many experts say this incentive doesn’t improve education.


Illustrations by James Yang

Offering financial to improve education — providing money rewards to students, teachers, schools, or districts as a way to motivate them to try harder and do better — is one of the hottest topics in education today.

On the student side, schools in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., are experimenting with financial rewards, including cash payouts to students who make good grades or show other achievement. The new competitive incentive grants from the federal Department of Education — the so-called “” money — hand out financial remuneration to states that comply with certain requirements, including improving academic results.

But the greatest focus has been “” initiatives for teachers whose students make the most academic progress, typically measured by results of standardized tests. The concept is simple: A series of influential studies in recent years have shown that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement, so “good” teachers — as reflected in growth in student test scores — should be paid more than their less able colleagues. Financial incentives will encourage teachers to try harder in their jobs, the theory goes, and those who don’t should leave the field and seek other careers. will rid schools of mediocre teachers, proponents say, leading to higher student achievement, betters schools, and, in the long-run, a more productive workforce in the United States.

In the ongoing effort to address the complicated issue of improving American education, pay for performance seems to make sense, and so the movement has caught on across the country. In the past decade, at least 20 states and a large number of districts have instituted some form of pay for performance for teachers, including California, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and the cities of Cincinnati, Denver, New York, and Charlotte, N.C., according to Donald Gratz, Ed.M.’76, author of the new book, The Peril and Promise of Performance Pay. And President Obama has announced that the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a competitive grant program to support pay for performance plans, will increase five-fold, from $97 million to $483 million.

But does pay for performance really work? According to many experts, the answer is a resounding no — especially when teacher ability is measured solely or primarily on student scores on standardized tests.

“There has never been any research that shows that this works, although it’s very fashionable to think that it should work,” says , the former education columnist at The New York Times and the author of a number of books on education, including Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.

“When it comes to the sexy reform du jour — basing teachers’ pay on student performance — the research doesn’t support it at all,” concurs , Ed.M.’72, an independent education consultant based in Washington, D.C., who worked for more than 20 years for the American Federation of Teachers. This year, Rosenberg did a project that required her to read “just about every piece of research available on this, including from the advocates,” she says. She found no evidence that pay for performance improves education. “It’s not there — it’s just not there,” she says.

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  • alfred devaprasad sumithran

    I agree fully with Professor Susan Moore Johnson, that emphasis on investing in teachers’ careers is the answer to a stable and successful teaching corps. The incentive pay scheme may kill the innate missionary zeal in every teacher.However, to provide for the practicalities of life and encourage many, specially men, to consider teaching as a sustainable career, an approach as that proposed by Prof.Susan Moore Johnson could hold the key.

  • Teacher

    It all sounds wonderful, now lets figure out the special education formula. Equal access to resources and equipment is another financial consideration, does teacher start with a level playing field, if not here come the grievances…

  • Chauncey Nartey

    Insightful piece. I was discouraged, however, by the lack of analysis regarding incentive systems that offer MORE than a “small sum of money.” While financial incentives may not be THE motivating factor for any quality educator, the absence of adequate compensation (when coupled with emotional exhaustion, lack of support/professional development, incompetent and dispassionate colleagues, etc…) may be enough to send the right people packing. Johnson and Papay’s proposed model is an encouraging balance between recognizing the impact of compensation while simultaneously underscoring the need to provide better support/development for the teachers that don’t flat out stink. Looking forward to seeing their results.

  • Eric

    Pay plan can never be perfect in any organization including schools; hence continuous improvement seems a right thing to do. what about a mix of short term and long term incentives?

  • Tim

    It is also important, as part of the school improvement process, to get teachers to “do the right thing”. I would argue that even small financial incentives can and do encourage teachers to add to their skill set. There is a good body of literature out there that indicates what “good” teaching is – but many teachers are not encouraged to learn new skills – they are only financially rewarded for time (# of years teaching) and degrees (which show little correlation with good teaching).

  • Denise Schiavo

    I am new to the field of education so I therefore lack some of the political baggage that is out there. I would like to make two comments: 1. We have little control over whether our students are hungry, without adequate shelter, the products of broken homes or addicted parents. Student standardized testing is based on state standards blind to those conditions which our students may face and over which we have so little control. Rewarding test scores may not be as valid as rewarding teachers who get those at-risk students safely through the day; 2. When I choose a doctor I don’t choose solely based on his/her mortality record, nor do I choose based on longevity (he/she may have been a bad doctor for a long time). I DO, however, choose based on training and currency – I want my doctor to be well-trained and able to apply the most effective procedures. Maybe that is the basis on which teachers should be rewarded.
    After all, even the best doctors don’t save all of their patients, but they certainly come well-prepared to do their best. By “best” I don’t necessarily mean this week’s latest innovation – after all, that will probably be “old” next week – I mean instead those approaches that actually WORK (old or new). I was just reading a 110 year old math text that I “rescued” from my great grandmother. Much of what I read there rings true in 2010. In the book Charles W. Eliot,LL.D., president of Harvard University until 1909, was quoted, “It is a curious fact that we as Americans habitually underestimate the capacity of pupils at almost every stage of education, from the primary school through the university.” Eliot lay down a challenge then which holds true today. We must not underestimate our students, and I believe that better student performance comes as a result of better teacher performance. The measure of teacher performance cannot be student test scores; instead we must find a way to measure effective teacher performance and reward that performance, not as incentive but as thanks.

  • Lyn

    To say that teachers go into the profession ‘for the kids’ is certainly true, but to say only that is naive misleading. Light should be shed on the numbers of talented and potentially great teachers that turn away from teaching because they simply don’t want to put up with the lifelong low pay, endless hours, low respect, and abuse by the media and budget processes. Dismissing education as a viable career option is so common that many high performing graduates won’t even consider teaching in the first place. Given the working conditions in the field, and particularly the lack of any hope of reasonable compensation, it’s easy to believe that many good people are choosing less painful career paths. How many men do you see working in early grades or in departments of education across the country today? Which gender expects and demands a higher rate of pay? Merit/Career Path pay systems like the one suggested do make sense, but only if we demonstrate that we truly value this work. A well structured merit pay system AND substantial increases in the pay for good teachers are both needed. If we demand more, we must pay more. Raise the bar.

  • Mike Archer

    As a second-career teacher with background in management and journalism, I remain stunned at the ongoing misuse of education data for political reasons. Basing entire systems of accountability on the premise that standardized test scores reflect teaching quality assumes all students are a uniform sample. That the President and Education Secretary would buy into this false premise reveals a pressing need to educate the public and policy makers on the fundamentals of learning and how education actually works.

  • Terry Lynch

    I am encouraged by a lot of what is contained in this article! The intangible motives behind teachers cannot be furthered by financial means to any substantial degree; but it does help. I also am interested with the 4 tier promotional approach as outlined by Johnson and Papay, however i can’t see teachers moving through such a system will benefit the educational system as a whole because so many teachers simply want to be classroom teachers and the lower pay will undermine their professional value and teacher Self-esteem. Teaching is about the personal connection between a student and their teacher. If Education is failing then it is because this connection is broken, and the factors that cause this are as wide ranging as any of life’s problems. Throwing money won’t help, but this coupled with peer and community relationship development will.

  • Angela Wexelman

    I have a question. The Missouri house is attempting to pass HB628 which creates a 4 tiered pay system. Within this tiered system is a set limit of teachers per building (40%)who can achieve tier 1 in a given year. Is that something that was reviewed/studied at these pilot projects? If so, how did that effect the teachers? How did parents feel having their child with a teacher in a lower tiered teachers classroom? Or, is this 40% limit created by Missouri legislators?

  • paul mock

    America’s leaders continually state that they are for “improving” education for the country’s students. I personally don’t see it. There is a lot of talk but little action taking place when it comes to ensuring that all of our nation’s students are receiving the best education possible. I get so tired of hearing that there’s no money. As a country we have money for everything else except our children and our teachers. Over and over our children have been placed on the backburner during tough economic times. How can we expect talented people to enter the education profession when they see states and local governments slashing education budgets with impunity? As a republic we must become more serious about educating our nation’s students. As a society, we must arm our students with the skills they will need to function in the 21st century. Today’s students must be critical thinkers with an ability to sort through tremendous amounts of information in a very short period of time. They need to be able to write cogent, efficient and substantive sentences when communicating with others. And finally, they must be taught how to collaborate with others in order to solve complex problems that will impact how we live as humans. The mission of preparing our students for the 21st century should not be taken lightly.

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