Incentives are a powerful motivator of human behavior. And because they are so powerful, we both use and encounter incentives almost daily. Our email in-boxes are filled with incentives to shop right now (“save 50% today only”). Governments have established “sin taxes” to discourage the use of alcohol and tobacco. And as parents we use all kinds of incentives to encourage the right behavior in our children (not all of which are effective!)
Incentives at Work
In employee compensation systems, incentives are foundational. Sales people earn commissions for selling. Employees work hard not only out of pride or as part of the employment ‘contract’, but also to earn a larger annual merit increase. Companies ask employees for cost-saving ideas, and pay out some of the savings to those who contributed the most profitable ideas. Annual bonuses are used by more than half of all private sector companies, and two-thirds of federal workers are awarded bonuses. Even the IRS pays out bonuses.
Why are incentives so prevalent? Because they work. If a certain behavior is desired, incentives are put in place to encourage it. This is why almost all organizations use incentives to encourage employees to contribute toward strategic goals.
Incentives for UCF Teachers
We saw in my previous post that UCF teacher pay increases due to three factors:
2. Graduate education
3. Across-the-board increases to the salary schedules.
On one level, these incentives are working very well. UCF teachers generally stay in the profession – about 30% have maxed out the longevity incentive. Anecdotally, I am told that it is rare for teachers to leave UCF for ‘greener pastures’. And UCF teachers aggressively pursue additional education: 87% hold at least a master’s degree, and more than half have earned a master’s degree plus 60 additional credit hours, maxing out the education incentive.
So the incentive system seems to be working — we are getting ‘more’ of what we are rewarding — longevity and advanced education.
But what about student performance? After all, isn’t the primary mission of our schools to give a great education to our students? We do not pursue long-service, highly-educated teachers as an end in itself, but rather because (presumably) well-educated teachers with lots of experience make better teachers. And better teachers will produce higher levels of student achievement.
So what does the research say? Is there a link between student achievement (the desired outcome) and years of experience (longevity) and post-secondary education of a student’s teachers?
Teacher Experience and Student Achievement
Before I started to read the research, my intuition was that teacher experience would be positively related to student achievement: the more years of experience a teacher has, the better teacher she would be, and this would show up in student performance. After all, I can’t think of too many professions where lack of experience is an asset! But what does the research show?
A 2002 review of 243 prior studies showed that less than half of the studies found any statistically significant relationship between teacher experience and student performance. Of the ~45% of studies that did find a relationship, almost all found a positive relationship (more teacher experience leads to higher student performance.)
These studies also showed that the benefits of experience have diminishing returns. The largest benefits from teacher experience were realized in the first year. And at least half of the total returns on teacher experience seem to occur in the first 5 or so years. This makes some sense — it is the classic exponential learning curve, or perhaps another example of the so-called 10,000 hours rule (about 6 years of teaching) which says it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expertise in a chosen field.
So my intuition about teacher experience was not quite right. Yes – there might be returns to experience, but the evidence is not that strong (remember- more than half of all research studies show no relationship exists). If there are returns to experience, they come in the first few years and have quickly diminishing returns.
Here is an excellent one page summary of the current research on teacher experience, from a national non-profit.
Teacher Post-Secondary Education and Student Achievement
When I first learned that teachers earned more as they continued their own education, it made sense. Additional education should make a teacher more effective in the classroom, right? How could additional eduction be a bad thing? If that’s what you think, you are in for a surprise!
The evidence on teacher education is unequivocal — additional education makes no difference (and may even be a negative).
A 2002 meta-analysis of 170 prior studies showed that only one-third of the studies found any statistically significant relationship between teacher education and student performance. And more importantly, in the highest quality studies only 9% found a relationship, and the relationship was negative (masters degree holders are less effective than teachers with only a bachelor’s degree.)
More recent studies have continued to replicate this result. And because there is so much evidence piling up, there have been calls from many quarters to eliminate extra teacher pay for masters degrees (see an example here) and North Carolina has recently done it for all teachers in the State (see here).
So our current pay system is not well-aligned with student achievement. Masters degrees do not make teachers more effective in the classroom. And if experience does make a difference, it appears that most of the gains occur in the first five years.
As one researcher put it:
If a rational system of teacher compensation, aimed at recruiting and
retaining high-quality teachers, were designed from scratch, it is unlikely
it would bear any resemblance to the system that is currently in place.
-Professor Michael Podgursky, University of Missouri-Columbia
Perhaps we should not be surprised — the step & lane pay system is a product of the early 1900s, and was developed for a different era, and was constructed with different goals in mind.
In my view, the step and lane pay system is outdated. The incentives encourage teachers to pursue degrees and remain in the profession, neither of which seems to drive student achievement. I don’t blame teachers for responding to the incentives … if I were a teacher, I would do the same thing. But I think teachers, parents, and tax-payers alike should recognize that the current system is not aligned with the organizational goals of our schools, and that we are devoting resources and energy to things (such as night and weekend courses) that are not helping us achieve our goals.
Teaching is a complex and challenging profession. In other challenging professions, we recognize and reward excellence through our compensation systems (and through many other means). If an organization wants ‘more’ of something (be it sales, cost-saving ideas, or excellent customer service) it rewards those who contribute to those objectives, and it does so with differentiated pay, bonuses, and other monetary and psychic rewards.
Is teaching so different as a profession that it is immune to the power of performance incentives? If we want our schools to help all students grow academically and achieve their potential, shouldn’t we have a pay system that identifies and rewards those who do it well? Shouldn’t we have incentives to encourage great teaching?
(Note: the same argument applies to incentives for principals and administrators, almost all of whom have no linkage between their compensation and student achievement.)
- Incentives are widely used to align employee efforts and behaviors with organizational goals
- In public schools, we pay teachers for longevity in the profession, and for completing additional post-secondary education.
- There is strong evidence that neither longevity nor graduate education has much to do with achieving our district’s educational mission: helping all student’s reach their academic potential.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!