Want to Motivate Teachers with Bonuses? Award Them for Individual Effort, Not Collective Effort

by James A. Bacon

The New York City school system performed a fascinating experiment over the past three years. The goal: to see if paying bonuses to school teachers and staff might spur educators to change how they teach enough to improve students’ educational achievement. There are some object lessons for Virginia, where legislators bandy about the idea of performance bonuses as an option for school reform.

The city set aside a $50 million pot of money to be distributed over three years to 200 or so schools (the precise number varied from year to year). The goal was to test the proposition that an incentive pay system would motivate educators to change their practices to ones more likely to improve student achievement,  explains the Rand Corporation in a report, “A Big Apple for Educators,” summarizing the program.

Three years and $50 million years later, the measured effect on student achievement was indiscernible. But that doesn’t mean the experiment was a failure — it yielded knowledge on how not to structure a performance plan.

Given the egalitarian ethos of educators in New York City schools, roughly two-thirds of the schools chose to divvy up their bonus, if they won it, between all teachers and staff, regardless of individual performance. Thus, the bonus amounted to roughly $3,000 per person. Even schools that differentiated between individuals on the basis of absences or unsatisfactory staff ratings “generally remained cautious about deviating from egalitarian awards,” Rand reports, and slated 74% of the staff for the modal award amount. In other words, nearly all the bonus money was paid for collective performance.

Here’s the real kicker: While teachers and staff expressed a strong desire to win bonuses, “many winners reported that, after taxes, the bonus seemed insignificant. In fact, almost one-half of the teachers … indicated that the bonus was not large enough to motivate extra effort.” Consequently, Rand reports, the bonuses had no effect on teacher-reported attitudes, perceptions and behaviors, and they had no effect on student standardized test scores.

Bacon’s bottom line: If you want to improve performance by motivating teacher to intensify their individual effort, you need to make the bonuses big enough to matter. Spreading around the bonuses to everyone in the school is plain idiocy if you don’t have a clear alternative model you’re coaxing them to buy into. Just handing out money and hoping for the best doesn’t work.

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3 responses to “Want to Motivate Teachers with Bonuses? Award Them for Individual Effort, Not Collective Effort”

  1. larryg Avatar

    this is a really DUMB idea based on simplistic lack of understanding about how teaching is done today especially with regard to students that need specialized help.

    New teachers, in such an environment would receive no mentoring. No experienced teachers in such a performance rating environment is going to “give away to others” the practical knowledge and experience gained.

    And newly recruited teachers will be given the hardest kids to teach that require much more than a degree in elementary education.

    Kids now, in good schools, are assessed to determine their strengths and weaknesses and if they have serious weaknesses, they are sent to specialized teachers who need to work collaboratively with the home-room teacher.

    So how do you rate the performance of a good and experienced teacher who works in an environment where helping to tutor and mentor new teachers is a disadvantage and ultimately counts against you?

  2. I am sort of in Larry’s camp. We need incentives for teachers to share their knowledge and experience, such that rewarding teams within a school makes sense to me. But there should also be some minimum performance standards for any teacher to qualify for a bonus.

    For example, a fourth grade team of five teachers may have made outstanding progress with their students that would qualify for a bonus. The entire team should receive the compensation. But if teacher X simply has not met the basics, he/she should not qualify.

    It is also important for there to be non-winners. I am not sure how many teams should win, but there should be a significant number that do not win or we have exactly what we have today — everyone gets the same compensation (% raises, flat or % bonuses).

  3. larryg Avatar

    it’s better to give rewards to teams of teachers or entire schools. The idea that there are “bad” teachers that need to be outed focuses on a logical but wrongheaded solution.

    You want to reward teachers and groups of teachers that achieve success.

    I’ve have to admit – being in the same house with a veteran teacher has had an effect on my view!

    A school with almost 40% economically disadvantaged – this year achieve SOL levels that rival and best schools with much lower demographic disadvantages – and it was achieved by “team teaching” – teachers working together to identify the kids weaknesses and then getting them help.

    In terms of rewards – I’d say that any group of teachers that achieve/best the SOLs should be recognized and rewarded. “Winners” should be identified by their successes not their ranking – IMHO.

    cheating? they should clean house – from the Principal down through anyone who had role – out – and no regrets. Make it the shameful thing it is.

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