Teacher Performance Pay Incentives

*This article was originally written in February of 2018 shortly after it was announced that our school system would be implementing “Performance Awards” for teachers. It was interesting for me to go back and read it after recently learning that I had received one of these bonuses. I think my writing has improved a bit, but my thoughts about the program have not.

February 2018~

So maybe this is not the best time to write this post, but I'm going to anyway. I just left a faculty meeting this morning where the topic for the entire meeting was the implementation of my school system's new performance based pay incentive program for teachers. I will begin by saying that I am not a proponent of this system and that the gist of this post is my rationale for why I do not support it. Please feel free to comment on this post especially if you are a proponent of performance based pay incentives for teachers, because I am going to be living with it and anything that can improve my attitude about it would be positive.

 I will begin by listing the rationale presented to us by our school system leaders for implementing this incentive program.
  • Recognizing the top-performing teachers at every school acknowledges that, despite their differences, all schools have teachers who deserve to be celebrated.
  • Rewarding outstanding teachers will help us with teacher recruitment, retention, and morale, all of which impact student achievement
  • Incentivizing top performance in every school will go a long way in helping us improve the education we provide across the district.
The incentives will be awarded as folllows:
  • The top 10% or teachers across the district will be awarded a roughly $6,000 bonus for being a district-wide top performer.
  • The top 10% of teachers at each school, who did not qualify for the district-wide award, will receive a $3600 bonus for being a school-wide top performer.
  • The next 10% of teachers at each school, who did not qualify for the district-wide award, will receive a $1800 bonus for being in the top 11%-20% of top performers for their school.
Awards will be based on the following formula:
  • Weighted School Assessment - 10%
  • Professional Growth - 15%
  • Student Growth (measured through district-wide assessments) - 35%
  • Teacher Evaluations by Admin - 40%
Oh my, where to begin?

My first point of contention is that from its conception the very idea of merit based performance pay is founded on a two false premises. That first premise is that most teachers aren't already trying their best to be really good at their jobs. The second premise is that the best way to motivate teachers to try harder is with money.

I don't believe that any teacher enters into this career because they want to get rich, because they want an easy, low stress job or because they want to compete against their peers for recognition. Money is simply not what makes us tick. There is no amount of money in the world for most people to put up with some of the things that we put up with. And there is no amount of money in the world for some people to start a career as a teacher, because if money is your motivation, education isn't the first thing you think of. People become teachers for a variety of reasons, but most probably have to do with a desire to work with and influence young people, and they enjoy the process and relationships that develop through the process of teaching another person. Anyone who goes into teaching thinking about long summer vacations and the utopia of learning that their students will flock to in order to soak in every ounce of knowledge that they have to pour into them will not last long. Nobody goes into teaching thinking that they just want to be mediocre. Teaching is hard. It can be physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. It can also be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, but not because you got a bonus in your paycheck.

I also don't believe that there are many teachers who believe that they know everything that they need to know and who aren't already trying to improve their effectiveness as a teacher. If you want to motivate or incentivize someone, you have to start by understanding what their internal motivations are. No teacher gets paid enough and all of us surely wouldn't mind being paid more, but that's not what is going to motivate us to do better. I also will acknowledge that there are some outliers who for whatever reason are burned out, low performing teachers, however you want to describe them, but they are the exception and not the rule. Chances are they know this and their chances to reach that top 20% of performance is so far out of reach that the motivation of attaining this level is likely minimal.

Next let me address the rationale for implementing the program and its expected outcomes.
  • Recognizing the top-performing teachers at every school acknowledges that, despite their differences, all schools have teachers who deserve to be celebrated.
So who could argue with this point? All schools have teachers who deserve to be celebrated. I totally agree with this statement. The problem is that this program is actually saying "all schools have 20% of their teachers who deserve to be celebrated." The other 80%, not so much. How can you arbitrarily assign a percentage to the number of teachers who deserve to be celebrated? If it is a "failing" school maybe that percentage is only 5%. If it is a "high achieving" school maybe that percentage is much higher. Maybe that "failing" school has a much higher percentage of teachers who deserve to be celebrated because they have the courage and determination to teach in a low socio-economic community in the sticks or in the inner-city. Maybe those teachers at the school in the affluent area have an easier job from the beginning because the resources and support that are available are much greater than in those other school systems? 
  • Rewarding outstanding teachers will help us with teacher recruitment, retention, and morale, all of which impact student achievement.
I really don't understand this at all. Are there statistics to back up this claim? Going back to my previous point about teacher motivation, I don't believe that most teachers enter into this profession because of the opportunity to compete with others for bonuses. Most beginning teachers spend their first years just trying to survive and figure out what they are doing. Check the statistics on teacher retention in the first 5 years on the job. Recruitment? If there is a teacher in a school or system who is a "high performer" what motivation is there to move to another school with stiffer competition? What about the teacher who is consistently in that 21%-25% range. Year in and year out, they are so close. They see their peers getting "celebrated" with bonus pay who don't work any harder or longer than they do. They are right there doing the same work getting comparable results, but maybe just a point or two lower than their colleague. How does that effect their morale? Or maybe that teacher who is in that 21%-25% range in their school decides they are going to move a little further out to a more rural district where there isn't quite as much competition so they can get a piece of that bonus pie. You just lost a really good teacher. One of the great things about being a teacher is the collegial and collaborative atmosphere of being a part of a teaching team. Now that you are competing for that bonus pay, what is the logic in sharing your techniques and tricks with someone else who might swipe that bonus away? How does any of this impact student achievement in a positive way?
  • Incentivizing top performance in every school will go a long way in helping us improve the education we provide across the district.
Nope, don't see it. Doing this in every school only spreads the environment I describe above to everyone. Again, is their evidence to support this argument?

How do I summarize and bring this post to an end? It is so obvious to me that this entire concept of pay for performance is something that came from outside the world of education. This wasn't developed by educators, this came from the business world through politicians. School systems, including my own, are not developing these programs because they really believe that it will help students. They are responding to political pressures who are ready to cut the legs out from under public school programs. The other problem is that this system is totally teacher focused, not student focused. Anytime the students are not at the top of the priority list of a program, it is destined to fail. So much time and money has been spent developing pre and post assessments for every grade level and every content area in our system. The problem with these "student" assessments is that they are not about assessing students, only assessing teachers. These assessment results account for 35% of the teacher’s effectiveness score. What good can possibly come from putting that much weight on a single assessment that could result in a $2000-$6000 bonus for a teacher? Does this focus the teacher's motivation on their students' learning or on preparing them for that one assessment?

Finally this is being dangled in front of teachers as an example of how much the system is willing to invest in teachers. Some of us have forgotten about the last 10 years when our pay was being cut because of furlough days that were implemented because of funding cuts from the state government. Or the last 10 years of no or very little cost of living pay raises because of the funding cuts to education. They keep emphasizing that nobody is going to make less money because of this program. Well, what about the money we lost over the last 10 years that has never been made up? If they really want to improve student achievement through financial incentives, my advice would be to offer the financial incentives to the students. If you graduate in the top 20% of your class, you receive a scholarship for college or post-secondary technical training. For the younger students offer cash incentives for improving your grades and assessment scores. Or offer funding to hire additional teachers specifically to serve the bottom 20% of students. ~sigh~

OK, enough for now. I need to go grade some student projects, and I am really going to grade them extra better this time!




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