For more than 40 years the educational world has debated the value of offering pay-for-performance as a teacher incentive. This can come across as insulting to educators. The assumption is that if we offer additional pay, teachers will work harder. It implies that teachers know how to improve student achievement but are not doing so because they are not sufficiently motivated and value financial rewards more than student success.
On the other hand, it is known that high-performing educational systems pay their teachers more than lower-performing schools. However, is this actual proof that educators will teach better for higher pay or is it that higher quality teachers work in areas with larger budgets? Generally, teacher salaries are based on credentials and years of experience, both of which have been shown to be poor indicators of teacher effectiveness. In addition, offering merit pay might level the playing field for some teachers thinking about leaving teaching for other professions which are more publically respected.
In lieu of this, some countries have begun offering higher salaries in undesirable areas to encourage teachers to go there. That doesn’t seem the same as judging teachers based on an arbitrary system or encouraging teacher competition over teacher cooperation in order to “win the bonus”. What has proved successful is offering pay-for-performance in areas which have limited resources and therefore, are unable to pay all of their teachers well. In this particular situation, bonus incentives have been found to not only motivate teachers to work harder to bring more success for their students but also keep teachers in those districts.
Should a school system decide to implement pay-for-performance incentives, it can only work if teacher evaluations are considered fair, valid, reliable and accurate-especially by the teachers themselves. Observations by trained evaluators, standardized test scores, and contributions to school-improvement can all be factors in choosing who receives merit pay. However, to get people to agree by what standards they are evaluating teachers can be a bureaucratic nightmare.
Another issue to consider is whether rewards will go to individual teachers, groups of teachers or the whole school. Individual rewards can be motivating to get people to work harder and give them a sense of control over their chance for recognition. Group awards, such as those based on an entire grade’s improving or even a whole school district’s growth over another, can promote team spirit and cooperation. Additionally, more than half of school teachers might not even be able to participate in a merit pay program since student learning is not applicable, such as gym, art and music teachers, media specialists, special educators, etc.
The bottom line: Performance-based pay might be an incentive in certain circumstances. However, getting the system to work successfully can be a large and possibly expensive challenge in and of itself. Since salary increases seem to only inspire when teaching as a whole becomes a respected profession with additional opportunities for growth, such as providing teachers with opportunities to advance in their field and contribute through educational research and innovations, perhaps we can by-pass the whole discussion by simply paying our teachers a competitive business wage.
What are your thoughts and experiences with pay incentives?