Don’t Take Away My Bonus Pay!

“It made no difference when you promised teachers a bonus at the end of the year…”

according to NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who reported the findings of a recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) research paper on the effectiveness of teacher bonuses and pay for performance plans.

Now, trying to figure out a fair and effective way to use bonuses to encourage teachers to do and be better is nothing new. The Douglas County School District (located just to the south of Denver) is implementing a plan that brings terms like “market-based” and “incentives” to the the forefront of these discussions. DCSD is not the only district to consider these changes, but, being that my children attend DCSD schools, I have a vested interest in the impacts of a pay for performance program on student learning and teacher morale.

I struggle with DCSDs plan for several reasons. Chief among them is the idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. In his 2009 TED talk entitled “The Puzzle of Motivation,” author Dan Pink carefully describes performance situations and scenarios that respond well to external motivators. Factory work, for instance, and repetitive tasks (think assembly line) can be improved when workers are offered bonuses and such for their speed, accuracy, etc. Cognitive and creative work, however, seems to be inhibited by such rewards. Why then, I wonder, would school districts consider bonus-type plans? Students aren’t factory parts. They don’t all walk into a classroom equally prepared and motivated. Are performance plans essentially treating the system like a factory?

There must be a better way.

To be fair, I certainly understand criticisms that address the inability of districts to fire “stale and ineffective” teachers. I also, to some degree, understand why people get upset with a pay scale that increases salary simply on the basis of longevity. Why should ineffective teachers have their salaries increased year to year? Surely some accountability can be used to spark improvement and reward effectiveness.

Yet even when I consider all of this I simply cannot fathom an environment where teachers receive bonuses based strongly on standardized test results… payable at the end of the school year – especially when I’ve hearing rumblings about studies concluding that pay for performance programs do not work and may encourage cheating and a further narrowing of the curriculum. Again, students are not widgets. They enter classes at different levels of motivation and confidence. Will same-content teachers begin to grapple over who gets which student in their classes? Might this inhibit collaboration?

Regardless, the true inspiration for this post is the NPR story and the NBER paper that it summarized. See, the findings support the conclusion that end-of-the year bonuses do not work in education. What did work was a system designed around the psychological phenomenon known as “loss aversion.” In this study teachers were given bonuses at the beginning of the year and told that they would have to pay the money back if student performance did not improve. The “loss aversion” groups moved their students more than the control and end-of-year groups. The researchers found that the teachers who received bonuses at the beginning of the year worked smarter and paid more attention to individual student achievement than those in the other groups.

I think there’s something elegant to their findings. Think about it…

Imagine a scenario where you may or may not receive a bonus at the end of the year if your students perform well and show marked growth.

Now think about a similar situation, only in this one you receive a bonus at the beginning of the year and then work to justify the money you were given.

The first scenario makes me feel a bit anxious; the second makes me feel confident.

If push came to shove, I’d chose the second scenario.

I sincerely hope that districts study research like this when considering pay-for-performance ideas. Then, the only thing they’ll have to worry about is how to fairly “measure” teacher effectiveness. Maybe there’s a standards-based grading (SBG) system out there that will allow for multiple forms and opportunities for assessment – that incorporates anecdotal evidence coupled with information from a tool specifically designed to measure student growth at various points in an academic year.

Well, something to chew on…


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