How is performance pay supposed to “work?” Performance pay advocates make three assumptions about how these plans will improve our schools, none of which are compelling to me:
1) Performance pay will cause teachers to try harder.
Last week, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg related, "In the private sector, cash incentives are a proven motivator for producing results. The most successful employees work harder, and everyone else tries to figure out how they can improve as well." Are teachers just slackers who need a juicy carrot to get them moving?
Given that most people go into teaching because of a commitment to kids, it strikes me that 1) teachers give kids their best as a matter of principle and conviction, and 2) teachers may be less likely to increase effort because of financial incentives than workers in the private sector. In econo-speak, point 2 suggests that teachers have different "objective functions" than private sector workers.
However, teachers do vary widely in their effectiveness. (See postings on measuring teacher effectiveness here.) Some performance pay supporters attribute a large proportion of this variation to something that can be changed by an incentive. But incentive plans are “capacity sorters” (i.e. they distinguish schools and teachers that already have organizational and instructional capacity from those that don't) as opposed to “capacity builders” (props to the Chicago Consortium’s Melissa Roderick for this insight). In this view, performance pay doesn’t help teachers who are struggling become better teachers. It only highlights what these teachers already know – that things aren’t going well in their classrooms.
Why not measure teacher effects, identify teachers who need more support, and fund expert teachers to provide instructional support to their colleagues – to plan with them, observe their classes, and provide feedback for improvement? This would be a higher yield investment than performance bonuses.
Of course, we can all muster examples of teachers who were dreadfully inadequate. My favorite example of late is a teacher who spent class time managing her inventory of Beanie Babies (noted in Karin Chenoweth’s Post op-ed). Ask yourself whether someone bizarre enough to spend class time organizing Beanie Babies is likely to stop doing so for $3000. I seriously doubt it.
2) In the case of school-based performance pay, it will encourage schoolwide collaboration.
If teachers in a school don’t collaborate, will a few thousand bucks melt years of bad feelings and internal rivalries? Ms. Frizzle made a great comment on this point, writing:
My gut tells me that in schools with high levels of trust and collaboration, this will work well, but that in schools with a divisive culture, it will make no difference or serve to divide the faculty even more….Once upon a time I worked in a much larger school with a fair amount of internal conflict. I don’t think dangling cash over our heads would have changed that very much…. and when I worked there, I would never have voted for a rewards system like this because I did not feel like a part of something larger than myself and did not trust my colleagues to work together towards a common goal.
For more on the role of trust in schools, check out this book by Tony Bryk and Barbara Schneider.
3) Performance pay will attract and keep better people in the teaching profession.
Will performance pay attract teachers who would not otherwise go into teaching? This argument assumes that there is a group of people out there who would teach but for their concern than their good efforts will not be rewarded financially. But relative salaries are central to career choices, and I suspect that people choose careers on the base salary as opposed to the salary plus bonus potential. In short, if you want to attract better people into the profession, you would be better off increasing base salaries.
Would performance pay keep better teachers in teaching? I don’t think so, because educators don’t leave teaching primarily because of the pay (though, as noted above, many don’t go into teaching in the first place because relative salaries are low – see this EPI study for comparisons with similar fields). By the time people have entered the profession, they already have accepted that teaching is not a bling-bling job. Many more teachers leave because they feel like they aren’t given the support to do their job well: i.e. their schools are chaotic, their classes are too big, their books are never delivered on time, there isn’t support to meet kids non-academic needs that affect learning, and there is little support to improve their own instruction. If we want teachers to stay in the profession – and we want them to teach in the most disadvantaged schools – improving working conditions would be a better place to invest than performance bonuses. (Hat tip to Leonie Haimson's analysis of the Public Agenda and North Carolina teacher surveys.)
To sum up, if performance pay advocates want to push these policies forward, they need to develop more satisfying rationales than the three reviewed above. I would love to see these folks lay out a detailed theory of change. (And please point me towards these explanations if they already exist.)