Can Pay For Performance For Teachers Improve Our Educational Systems?

Q: Robert, I see that you've been involved in a spirited debate on LinkedIn about whether paying teachers on the basis of their performances, test scores, or some other outcome, would be a solution to improving educational quality in our schools. What IS your position on paying teachers bonuses based on some criteria or student outcomes?

Robert: Generally, I have nothing against rewards or bonuses in principle, but as I've said in relation to other kinds of jobs, the pay for performance is fraught with problems about how to evaluate, whether one can actually do it fairly, and that kind of thing. However, when it comes to teachers, and weighing both the practical challenges, and looking at school systems where pay for performance has been tried, my conclusion is that there is no chance that pay for performance for teachers will improve education for the children attending school. And THAT should be the ultimate point.

The only reason to use a system of any sort in schools is that it will result in better educations for the kids. Bonus systems don't do that.

Q: Robert, that seems sort of contrary to common sense. Isn't it the case that "what's rewarded gets done".

Robert: Maybe but that's a bit superficial here. Pay for performance is based on a set of assumptions about teachers, and again, apart from the practical issues, since those assumptions are wrong. it can't work.

Q: Can you explain about those assumptions?

Robert: Sure. We're talking about providing incentives to produce better results. The logic is simple, but wrong.  But first you have to understand how incentives work, or are supposed to work.

Incentives don't make anyone smarter. They don't change the skill sets of people. In this case, on the day that pay for performance is introduced, teachers don't become smarter, immediately become more skilled or knowledgable teachers. Follow me so far?

Q: Yes.

Robert: Ok. So, incentives of any sort are supposed to work by encouraging people to work harder, or to be more motivated, with the notion that by greater effort, they'll become better practitioners. Incentives do nothing else. They operate at the motivational level.

So the question is "Are problems in our schools a result of poorly motivated teachers, lazy teachers, teachers who would be motivated by some relatively small bonus to somehow work harder?" Because if that's NOT the problem, you can't solve it via incentives.

Q: So let me guess. You're going to say that the problem - why schools may not be doing as good a job as they can, has to do with things OTHER than teacher motivation?

Robert: Yes, Basically. I suppose there are, as there are in any fields, teachers that don't care, or teachers that might work harder if they got a kick in the ass, or some monetary reweard (the stick or carrot), but I'd suggest that the percentage of teachers who are lazy and don't make the effort is low. Really low. Again, as with any field we'd like less of them, but it's just not likely that offering some sort of small non-lifechanging bonus is going to light a fire under those people.

Teacher motivation to work harder isn't a cause of poor school outcomes, at least relative to all the other reasons why schools may not be producing the results we'd like.

Q: You said that bonuses don't make teachers smarter, but wouldn't pay for performance encourage teachers to learn more, to continue their formal schooling and their base of knowledge about teaching and learning?

Robert: I suppose it might, for a small minority of teachers, but it doesn't matter, because the existing pay scales for teachers already take into account teachers' credentials and how far they've gone in furthering their educations. Masters degree teachers already make more, for example. The pay jumps for getting an advanced degree are significant, and last over a career, and are far more valuable than "bonus" pay to those that want long teaching careers. Which is why so many teachers continue their formal educations after they've worked in the profession, not to mention they want to be better teachers out of pride.

Q: Ok. So you say you don't believe pay for performance will result in better teaching, or better student outcomes. Do you think there are negative outcomes for performance pay with teachers. Can these systems actually make schools worse?

Robert: I think there's that risk. I wouldn't absolutely say that performance pay would make things worse, but I suspect it can happen.

Q: Could you explain?

Robert: How about we continue that part of the discussion a bit later, since it's really kind of a standalone topic that can't be covered in a few questions. (click here to see the next interview)

Q: Ok. Let's do that.

This is part of our series, Never Ending Bacal Interviews On Teaching and Schools. To see more like this click here to go to the main section page.