One of the most unsettling things we are discovering about teaching in America is that it isn’t very good, and that unlike fine wine it doesn’t get better with age. The best research we have suggests that first year teachers are horribly unprepared, that they improve a little in years two and three, and that they don’t get much better after that. Even getting a master’s degree doesn’t make a difference. Ultimately, value-added research has shown that it is virtually impossible to expect even 10 percent of our teachers to significantly improve their skills over the course of their careers.
But we must also work with what we have. Creating positive teacher change, especially for in-service teachers, is the Sphinx-like riddle of our age. But it has also been my job for over a decade. And I really hate to not get better at my job. I am motivated by money and by all those simple capitalist goodies that are so easy to keep track of. So I’ve worked hard to get better over the years at helping teachers get better.
What I discovered is that the solution to motivating teachers is much simpler than I thought. I’ve gotten good gains with larger groups in a year or less by offering one simple highly motivating incentive: Helping teachers improve their instruction so that their lives are easier and their kids learn more. The KIPP-like round-the-clock intensity that seems to work so well for our high-flying charter schools has its virtues. But this isn’t going to work with longtime instructors. We have to show teachers how to work less, not more, while their kids get smarter at the same time.
Saving time, however, is not enough. The easiest way to save time is simply not to do your work. Give out textbook-based assignments and sit behind your desk all day. Become a packet queen. Show movies. It isn’t hard to do less at school. But teachers who do this turn into burnouts or just tend to fade out of their schools until there is nothing left. They also break a lot of rules which isn’t very affirming either.
Every teacher knows why they’re in the room: to help children learn. And even if you hate your job, or you’re terrible at it, or you’re having a bad time in your personal life, you have dozens of little reminders in the form of students looking to you every day for new learning. Truth is, many teachers may not be very responsible about making sure kids learn, but every teacher feels that responsibility, and I think it even carries a certain amount of ethical weight. So part of what motivates teachers is saving time. But the other part is seeing kids learn. And getting one without the other is simply not good enough.
If you’ve got 100 things that fulfill both of those goals—and my company does—teachers will gobble them right up and put them into practice. They’ll start to get happier, too. After all, they’ll have more time on their hands and, most importantly, they’ll see their kids learning more and more rapidly.
Our approach at our training is a simple trade: We’ll trade you one bad practice that has never worked for one equivalent practice that will work a lot better. And we’ll prove it by coming into your room and using it with your kids first. That way you know it works and we know it works.
We’ll also show you how to stop doing the myriad useless tasks you think they have to perform—even though you know they don’t help kids learn. Chief among these is grading papers. We show teachers how to give feedback to kids while they’re actually working and can really use the advice. When you just hand back grades, your students find it hard to integrate this poor form of feedback into their learning.
But beyond my work, we should use what we already know about motivation. We know this: External motivators such as performance pay can work. But internal motivation factors work better There are many choices. All are better than what we do now.
My personal favorite is Deci & Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory”. Dan Pink does a splendid job of describing it in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” The Deci & Ryan model is based on three simple components which, when present to sufficient degrees, seem to help people learn to motivate themselves. This approach to internal motivation is much more effective in the long run. [My colleague, RiShawn Biddle, takes some issue with Pink’s studies on motivation, arguing as he did yesterday that Pink that doesn’t understand the role of compensation structure and economics in motivation.]
“Self-Determination Theory” says we do our best work when we these three key factors in place:
Autonomy: Never force teachers to use our stuff or even force them to use it the way we use it. As a teaching instructor, I do make recommendations and provide models and “Script the early moves” as the Heath brothers suggest in their new book on change. But teachers ultimately need the autonomy that Deci & Ryan define as choice over tools, technique, time, and task. This is opposed to the approach of many performance-based pay programs, which provide rules and adoptions and other constraints that make their work harder.
Competence: Who likes spending their whole day feeling like they’re screwing up? Because of poor training and the lack of meaningful on-the-job support, teachers rarely feel competent about what they do. To motivate them through our training, we attempt to create situations that guarantee they’ll feel competent with new practices by teaching those practices right along side of them. We call this co-teaching and it’s not only a lot of fun, it’s a real confidence builder. Most importantly, we don’t let people stay mired in failure. Anyone who has a bad lesson or a bad unit is encourage to write or call us right away for help—at no charge—so we can get them unstuck and feeling competent again.
Relatedness: Unless you’ve been a teacher, it’s hard to imagine how lonely the job is. You spend almost every minute of your day stuffed in a room full of kids. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only adult on the planet. We all have a need to feel like a part of something larger than ourselves. But schools are designed as sets of rectangular isolation wards. This is patently demotivating. In our approach, we try to open those rooms up with cross-class activities, co-teaching opportunities, modeled teaching sessions, teaching teams (not PLCs!), and just about any way we can get more than one teacher in a room at the same time.
The important thing in all of this is to focus on building internal motivation. This will last longer than any effects from external motivations provided by performance pay plan. Even when performance pay works, it isn’t sustaining for the long run. All of us, including teachers, need to feel motivated about our work over the course of a long and other challenging career.
Motivating teachers is a lot easier if you understand what motivates them. And it is reasonable to assume that they can be motivated to improve by helping them make their jobs easier and their practice more effective. In this sense, the motivational component is more direct. Being well paid and being judged meritorious have never been primary values for career classroom teachers. By contrast, time and learning have always been high on teachers’ list of priorities. And if we help them teach kids better, we have helped reform education for the better.
Since the 1990s, state governments alarmed that state universities were making college unaffordable, concerned that they weren’t focused on improving college graduation rates, and worried that they weren’t bringing more minorities into lecture halls, began offering performance incentives in order to change how universities operated. In Indiana, for example, Purdue University and Indiana University could earn $5,000 for every student that graduated with a baccalaureate degree, while the Hoosier State’s community college system could get $3,500 for every student that garnered an associate’s degree.
But so far, such incentives have not improved college completion, affordability, or minority participation. Why? Because none of the performance incentives are large enough to actually reverse the influence of the core funding streams of state appropriations, restricted grants and donations, and financial aid to students from state and federal governments — all of which either reward universities for the number of students attending their campuses or for developing programs outside of the core mission of educating students. Since state appropriations as a percentage of overall university dollars is also in decline, the incentives are an even smaller portion of the dollars garnered from state governments and a miniscule portion of overall funding. Unless state legislatures are willing to fully restructure how state universities earned their income — and stand up against the wrath of alumni among their own voter bases in the process — they would never achieve their reform goals.
This lesson from state university reform efforts also applies to the matter of current teacher performance pay efforts in elementary and secondary education. While it is wonderful to begin developing such programs, they are currently nibbling around the edges of how teachers are actually paid. The plans that have been put in place so far — including New York City’s performance pay experiment — never really touched And until teacher compensation is completely reformed, performance pay will not accomplish the goals of rewarding high quality teachers for their work, spur teachers to improve student achievement, or even change the anti-intellectual and anti-data culture that is endemic in American public education.
My colleague, Steve Peha, offers his own reasons for why performance pay has had issues in the piece below. Steve’s right about some things. But the argument that teachers are already doing the best they can and only need to be taught how to be better fails to consider the fact that some teachers just aren’t capable of actually doing the job does little for kids subjected to educational malpractice and neglect. He also overstates the opposition to the use of value-added measurement of student test data in teacher performance; surveys have shown that younger teachers agree with such use and accept the inevitability of its use in measuring how they improve student achievement. With value-added being found to be scientifically valid and largely accepted by all but hardcore opponents of school reform as useful in evaluating teacher performance, veterans will either accept it now or be forced to accept it later.
Steve also too willingly embraces the myth that teachers don’t value (and aren’t motivated by) money. Teachers may not be working for big upfront paychecks (and can’t be since that isn’t offered until late into their careers), but they do value money and are motivated to stay in their jobs even when they are burned out because of it. The fact that teachers unions and veteran teachers are fighting efforts to end tenure and cut back define-benefit pensions — two of the big long-term income streams in traditional teacher compensation — prove that the Paychecks-Doesn’t-Matter myth is just that.
The biggest problem is that Steve and most other foes of performance fail to understand the role of compensation structure in influencing the effects of performance pay. This is a problem that extends to Daniel Pink, whose book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has become their rallying text. The reality is that everyone’s work — including that of teachers — is as much influenced by reward and how it is put together. And in education, the structure of compensation is as influential in shaping what teachers actually do as personal motivation. And current performance pay programs make this point crystal clear.
At this point, teacher participation in performance pay initiatives — including New York City’s effort and the ProComp effort in Denver — is voluntary. There is no district in which teachers are being forced from traditional teacher compensation plans into a performance-based regime. Thus there is not enough evidence to show whether performance pay can affect systemic change on a wide scale.
The fact is that most of these performance pay plans have not been around long enough to actually begin working. The New York City initiative, for example, only existed for four years; the Denver effort was only started five years ago. The only large-scale (and so far, successful) performance pay initiative that has been in existence for longer than five years is the TAP program started by Lowell Milken — and even that program is only 11 years old.
Then there are the actual rewards given by the performance pay plans themselves. When you look at the actual bonuses compared to the annual income teachers are getting (and the value of their overall compensation), you can see why the programs aren’t working. Teachers participating in New York City’s performance pay initiative only got between $1,500 to $3,000 for either improving school performance by 75 percent or meeting the performance target for each school; for a veteran New York City instructor who has seen union-negotiated pay increases of more than 23 percent in the past decade and now earns as much as much as $100,049 a year, the bonus can be the equivalent of just 3 percent of pay. In contrast, performance bonuses doled out in Corporate America can often be the equivalent of as much as a third of annual pay (and usually come along with performance-based pay raises).
This is typical for most teacher performance pay experiments: Achieve major results in exchange for miniscule dollars that don’t actually factor into the income stream of teachers who already earn a comfortable and guaranteed living. And such small bonuses aren’t going to work. The dollars (and other incentives) are often not large enough to motivate a teacher to work harder, especially if they have gotten all of their existing pay packages. Why would a veteran teacher, who already has tenure, a $1 million pension annuity, near-lifetime employment and protection from reductions in force, work harder for a mere $3,000?
The reality is that while teachers may not be the most economically-sensitive professional group, they do understand economics. As pricing of a good or service represents its value to consumers, pay assigns value of work to employers. Through the current compensation system, teachers have learned that what American public education values seniority, degree attainment, seat time and protection from economic dislocation. And current experiments in performance pay teach them that harder work for better results has none at all. This is especially true for younger teachers, who, like their peers in the private sector, no longer expect to teach for the rest of their lives.
Teachers don’t just want meaningful rewards in the form of pay; this is a reality that current performance pay experiments don’t address. The younger generation of teachers coming into the profession are frustrated that the only career path in teaching is from one classroom to another; save for TAP (which offers a path for highly-qualified teachers to become master instructors), most performance pay plans don’t offer new career path options or change the emphasis on seniority. The socially entrepreneurial among them are even more frustrated by both performance pay experiments and current teachers compensation systems because there is no reward for stepping out and developing innovative programs that can improve student achievement. Performance pay plans don’t offer grants to innovative teachers to start their own schools or own programs.
Of course, most performance pay experiments can’t offer any of this. One reason is that they are often poorly designed. The more-important reason is because they aren’t incorporated into the system of teacher compensation. So they are meaningless to veterans (who have gotten all the benefits of the system), slightly worthwhile to less-senior instructors who want more money and a meaningful career path, and unappealing to socially entrepreneurial teachers.
Can performance pay work? The positive results from TAP and ProComp so far tell us that it can. But the performance pay structures must be better-structured. The benefits must be largely enough to be worthwhile for teachers to pursue. It must appeal to the desires of socially entrepreneurial teachers. It must be part of efforts to create a more-rewarding career path that is rewarding to teachers. Most importantly, performance pay must be an integral part of the teacher compensation system. And that means restructuring how we currently structure teacher pay and performance evaluation.
The problem with traditional teacher compensation is that it has the wrong carrots and absolutely no sticks. The packages– including tenure, defined-benefit pension annuities and seniority-based privileges — reward teachers for seat time, for remaining in a job for years regardless of the quality of their work. There’s no reward to young highly-qualified teachers for good-to-great work. There’s little reward for talented veteran teachers — either in terms of bonuses or opportunities for innovation and career elevation — for top performance over time. And there is no incentive for districts to remove laggard teachers or to create environments in which good-to-great teachers get support, career opportunities, and chances to advance and improve their skill-sets.
Meanwhile there are no sticks. Current performance management systems only evaluate teachers based on scheduled observations — which are subjective, doesn’t allow principals to see teachers day to day (when they actually do their work) and often aren’t conducted anyway — instead of on objective evidence of student achievement. Since the consequences of poor performance only come during the first two-to-five years of a teacher’s career, veteran instructors are essentially insulated from scrutiny; districts only take the arduous and expensive effort to fire laggards only a teacher is so atrocious that her work (or more often, her extracurricular actions) can no longer be ignored or passed along to schools within the system.
The status quo is costly to high-quality teachers, to principals, to districts and to taxpayers. Worse of all, it subjects kids to educational abuse and malpractice. It cannot stand.
Keeping traditional teacher compensation is not the solution for improving student achievement. But the current performance pay experiments don’t offer a high-quality alternative. What is needed is a compensation structure that rewards high-quality teachers for their work immediately upon entering the profession, provides opportunities for teachers to advance themselves (and ultimately, student achievement) as creators of cultures of genius in schools, and gives chances to improve performance over time. It must include rigorous performance management, the use of student data in evaluating work, and the development of professional development that helps continue the development of good-to-great teachers. And we need the sticks (including quick dismissals and performance pay) to help weed out the teachers who shouldn’t be in classrooms from those who should stay.
At this point, all that we know about performance pay in education is that it is poorly structured and integrated into traditional teacher compensation. It is critical to continue developing performance pay and making the rewards more meaningful. And it must be part of an overhaul of a teacher compensation system that doesn’t work for anyone, especially our kids.
Performance-based pay took another hit this week. A study of the much vaunted New York City system by Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that teachers of many kids in the program actually did worse over time.
This certainly isn’t the first public failure for merit pay. But it’s an important failure for three reasons. For one, most people seem to take it for granted that merit pay schemes will work as long we try enough of them on enough teachers for enough time. And yet, the last few studies that have come out have been negative or inconclusive. The fact that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was hugely enthusiastic about the program when it was launched – and had now discontinued it – makes you wonder how a pretty smart guy when it comes to money could he have been so wrong. And the program wasted philanthropic and tax dollars on an idea that has little research support.
By most standards, this was a fairly large study jam-packed with 20,000 teachers and their students, more than enough to get a pretty good take on the notion that more money might encourage better teaching. But perhaps most significant of all is that Fryer, who was predisposed to supporting merit pay, came out of it with both his integrity and an “ambivalent” view of performance pay.
So here we are, 10 years into “scientifically-driven research-based” reform and we’re still pushing programs that, when researched, don’t seem to work. This is patently inconsistent with how we say we are fixing our schools. We’re still misusing public funds and abusing the public trust. It is obvious that so-called “research-based” programs and practices either aren’t based in good research or have never been proven effective at all. A line is being drawn down the center of education reform, a battle line. And it isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about ideology. In this case, Bloomberg put it perfectly when told GothamNews.org that “I am a capitalist, and I am in favor of incentives for individual people.”
Still the question persists: Why doesn’t merit pay work? Here in America, capitalism is an ideological slam dunk. Why doesn’t paying teachers more money lead to better performance? I’ve surveyed dozens of groups of teachers informally about this during my career as a teacher trainer. I’ve also observed, as I’ve had to motivate teachers myself, what works and what doesn’t. I’ve made far more mistakes than Bill Gates or Mayor Bloomberg. I just haven’t made them with millions of dollars or thousands of people.
Even in my own company, where I’ve hired teachers to be consulting associates, money has never been the mechanism for improving performance. And as a former technology entrepreneur, I have been through the same intellectual frustrations about why this isn’t so. At the same time, I’ve also figured out why money doesn’t motivate teachers and what does.
I’m not saying money will never work or that money never has some positive effect. But my experience of teachers and teaching—and merit pay programs—tells me that this lever of reform will never deliver all the leverage we think it should.
Over the years, I’ve identified many reasons why I don’t think merit pay will be very effective in improving teacher performance. But here are a few simple ones that I think most people will see some merit in—even if they’ve always considered themselves ardent supporters of merit pay:
In general, teachers are not an economically-sensitive group. Teachers actually make a much more reasonable living than most people think (especially when we look historically at job security and benefits) when compared to other professions requiring similar knowledge and skills. They usually make enough money to live reasonably well at the lower levels of the middle class, especially if they have a working spouse, they teach more than 10 years, and they get a Master’s degree.
But those who choose to be teachers are not highly motivated by monetary gain. One of the things teachers like best about teaching is that they can know exactly how much money they’ll get on the first day of every month. They usually don’t have much experience negotiating their own pay. They will take whatever it is offered and will not be especially concerned with what that is. They are not MBAs using complex calculations to squeeze out increased profits.
For people who are not highly focused on increasing wealth, and who tend to think they are always poorer than they probably are, fluctuations in income, even if there’s a possibility of increasing it, are difficult to deal with and best avoided. When income shifts, even in a positive direction, budgeting and financial discipline come into play; it’s possible to plan badly and make a mistake. Most teachers feel more comfortable knowing exactly how much they’re going to make every month—and neither modest increases nor even modest decreases are as important as consistency, predictability, and the minimization of risk.
Teaching is a complex act that is difficult to define and to track in process. Studies, most notably a large one done by The Federal Reserve, show that performance-based pay works reasonably well for simple tasks and for piece-work tasks. For complex tasks, however, it seems to have little or no positive effect at all.
As teachers perform what is an unpredictable, ill-defined, and hard-to-track task, all of their energy goes into managing its complexity. It’s a lot easier, in a simple task, especially a piece-work task, to have cognitive bandwidth left over for keeping track of how well you’re doing. This “keeping track” is what provides the actual instances of motivation that, over time, inspire better results.
As a result of teaching’s complexity, it’s hard to know how you’re doing relative to a quantitative goal from week to week or month to month. Are the kids proceeding quickly enough? It’s hard to know for sure. As a result, you don’t get the rush of motivation from knowing that you’re ahead of schedule. Nor do you get the information you need to motivate yourself to catch up if you realize you’ve fallen behind.
Many teachers do not value or trust test scores as legitimate measures of learning. Teachers value learning, even when they’re not sure what learning is. But what most believe in their heart of hearts is that tests don’t measure it. They may be wrong about that psychometrically. Then again, most teachers aren’t psychometricians. So when merit pay plans are based in whole or in part on improving test performance, teachers are less motivated than we might hope they would be simply because they don’t trust or value the metric they’re being measured by.This occurs in the private sector all the time when thoughtless managers create incentive programs that don’t match the value systems of their employees.
Many teachers don’t trust tests. And it’s hard to imagine they ever will simply because testing is so brutally reductive. Turning kids’ learning into numbers removes so much of what teachers feel they pour into their jobs, what marketing genius Seth Godin calls “emotional labor”. You can’t be even an average teacher and just phone it in every day. The kids expect you to care about them, even if they don’t always seem to care about you. Teaching is a deeply emotional endeavor.
Standardized tests are particularly effective at erasing our ability to account for the emotional labor component of a teacher’s work—or the emotional competencies of a teacher’s students. But these may well be the very components many teachers value most. In an age of data, we may be able to measure what teachers do. To psychometricians, it may make perfect sense to reduce kids to dots on a graph. But for many teachers, it will never make sense.
Most merit pay programs are insufficiently transparent. In most performance-based pay situations, the performance-pay mechanism is transparent. You can see it all the time and you can use your own frequent assessments to motivate yourself. This idea of transparency lies at the heart of what makes incentive systems work. If I sell cars on commission, I can calculate my earnings to the penny any time I want. If I’m a running back pushing for my 1000-yard bonus, I can see my totals at the end of each game and know exactly what I need to accomplish during the rest of the season. If I’m a CEO with my pay tied to profits or stock price, I can watch those numbers all the time, too.
In performance-based pay programs in education, however, teachers often don’t know if they’ve been successful until a school year is almost over. At that point, no adjustments can be made. You don’t know where you are, if what you’re doing is working, or how exactly to change things if what you’re doing isn’t working. To most teachers, it seems as though they have very little control over whether they receive your bonus—and no way to use their own assessments along the way as potential motivators.
Most human beings do poorly in situations where they feel they have little control over their results. This may account for why, in some performance-based studies like the recent NYC affair, some teachers actually perform worse. It’s also why so many teachers do not support merit pay at all. They just can’t tell at any time how much money they’re supposed to be making and, not being “money people”, then tend to think they’re getting taken advantage of if they can’t be sure they aren’t.
Most teachers are already doing about as well as they can. I’m over six feet tall and I love to play basketball. But you could offer me a million dollar bonus for a single slam dunk in a low-skill rec league and I’d never collect a penny. Most serious players over six feet tall can dunk. But I’ve just never been a good jumper. And regardless of all the things I did in my competitive years to jump higher, the gains I achieved never even got me within a few inches of touching the rim.
Most teachers are in a similar position. They’re maxed out. It’s not that they couldn’t learn to be better. But it isn’t money that’s going to do the teaching. It’s probably training, support, better working conditions, a docile and good-natured group of kids, a great principal, good colleagues, collaboration, a lot of self-study, a lot of reflection, and a lot of time—all things that rarely come in performance-based pay programs. They are unlikely to ever earn a bonus.
There are two important implications here. First, we know that teachers are poorly trained and poorly supported in their schools. Second, and more important, is that teachers know this, too. I don’t think I’ve run across a group of trained college graduates with a deeper sense of shame about their abilities, a greater sense of resentment about the system in which they work, or more powerful and all-consuming degrees of cynicism, pessimism, and victimhood. The idea that somehow teachers don’t know how ineffective and unmotivated they are is naive. As a teacher, I know, most of the time, whether kids are “getting it”.So, no matter how much you incentivize me with money, I already know I’m probably not going to be able to win the bonus because I’m already getting the best results I can imagine.
Most teachers do their best most of the time. Whether their best is good enough is not the question at hand. The question is how to motivate them to do better, and even to exceed their own highest expectations. Performance-based pay has little effect on this because there is no significant surplus of unused teaching capacity. You can’t get much higher than 100 percent.
We have to help teachers become better at their work and being able to do better without exhaustive effort. This is a simpler and better way to reward teachers and motivate them to improve their work than current performance pay plans. Tomorrow, I will discuss how I do this in my work training teachers.