Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Will Incentives Save Us?

vonzastrowc's picture

On Thursday, the Center for American Progress released Financial Incentives for Hard-to-Staff Positions, a report on teacher pay that draws lessons from fields like government, the military, medicine and private industry. The report offers very valuable analysis of the kinds of incentives that might coax effective teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

Yet it also disappoints in a couple of respects. For one, it offers little information about effective pay-for-performance structures in other fields. (It will hardly end acrimonious debates between supporters and critics of performance pay). It also minimizes the importance of other strategies for ensuring poor and minority students access to the most effective teachers and administrators.

Among the points that caught my attention are these:

  • Teachers' base pay should be competitive with base pay in other fields. "In each of the sectors we studied, financial incentives for hard-to-staff positions are layered on top of a starting salary that is fundamentally competitive with candidates' job opportunities in other industries or organizations."
  • Incentive pay in education tends to be way too low. "Employers across sectors are providing much larger incentives than the majority of hard-to-staff pay programs in education. Incentives between 10 percent and 30 percent of a teacher's salary would be more in line with other sectors."
  • Pay-for-performance is great--if you can find meaningful measures of success. "In the broad compensation literature, cross-sector evidence strongly suggests that adding a performance-based pay component to compensation consistently attracts and retains higher performers. And the larger the incentive pay opportunity available for a job, the higher its attraction for high performers.... As in all uses of performance pay, these effects will be greatest if schools and districts find meaningful ways to define and measure performance."
  • Teacher compensation is no silver bullet, but it's the easiest target for policymakers. "States and districts have struggled for decades to find solutions for the organizational conditions that underlie chronically underperforming schools. These are arguably policymakers' most important concerns, as they affect not only teachers' working conditions but also students' learning--and they should not be abandoned in exchange for a new 'silver bullet' in teacher compensation.... Induction, support, leadership, and other factors are more important [than compensation] in employees' decisions to enter or leave. But in most cases, none of these factors is as easy to modify in response to changing circumstances as pay."

A few observations about the last two points--

  • Regarding performance pay and meaningful performance measures: Tell us something we don't already know! In education, it's anything but easy to find meaningful, reliable and fair measures of teachers' performance. Just ask Jay Matthews, Diane Ravitch and Robert Pondiscio (among many, many others). Even after studying pay-for-performance systems in the military, the civil service and government, the reports' authors offer little concrete guidance for educators. They make vague references to "complex performance evaluation systems" that guide decisions in other sectors. Can we learn something more specific from those systems?
  • Regarding teacher compensation as insufficient but expedient: In an issue as important school staffing, we should aim for more than expedience. In 2005, we at the Learning First Alliance said as much in our common framework for addressing staffing inequities. The Alliance, whose 18 national member associations represent millions of educators, parents and policymakers, listed incentives as only one element of a comprehensive strategy to attract and retain effective educators in hard-to-staff schools.

Other critical elements include effective school leadership, better working conditions, stronger professional support, better preparation, more efficient hiring and placement policies, greater policy coherence, and--yes--funding based on student needs. If we're serious about ending staffing inequities, we must attend to all these areas.

The Center for American Progress report waxes pragmatic when it argues that "none of these factors is as easy to modify in response to changing circumstances as pay." Is this pragmatism self-defeating?

Let's hope policymakers can set their sights on more than just compensation as they seek solutions to grave school staffing challenges. Even they can suffer from the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Update: Teacher Ariel Sacks offers an assessment of CAP discussions of hard-to-staff schools.

[Image Credit: www.houserabbit.co.uk]