Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Incentive Pay Is Not The Answer

As we're in the middle of a snow day, "Inside the Audit" will continue tomorrow when we will, hopefully, be back to school.

Incentive pay. It's a buzzword right now. People think that tying student performance to teacher pay is the way to encourage teachers to increase student scores. There are several reasons why this is a terrible, awful, no good idea.

First, if you're in teaching for the paycheck, teaching is not the job for you. Money should not be your motivator. Teaching is not a job. It is a career. It is a practice. It is a dedication. Teaching is not for those simply wishing to fill their pockets. Teaching has its own rewards, and money isn't one of them. If it were, teachers would already make more money. As it is, teachers are underpaid and overworked. Waving dollar bills in our faces and asking us to work even harder doesn't make sense. If you aren't already working that hard, you need to find a new job.

Second, the kids I receive is entirely luck of the draw. They come from different middle schools. Some of them have been home schooled. Some of them are on their third or fourth high school when I get them in January of their freshman year! However, I'm going to be expected to get all of them to the exact same place in order to make money? What if one of them started the year at a third grade reading level? Getting him to a seventh grade reading level by the end of the year would be practically miraculous, to say nothing of the fact that his test scores would still be sub par because he's not on grade level. So I'll make these incredible advances with these students who need the most help, but that won't be reflected in my pay. My pay will tell me that I have failed.

Let's imagine it this way. Pretend you're in a profession that actually makes sense to work on commission. How about car sales? You get hired at Big Bud's Auto Sales or where ever and you're told you'll make money on every car you sell, but you only get to sell from Lot 6. You are so excited! Finally, you are working a job where you get paid for how hard you work! And you plan on working hard. And then you arrive on Lot 6. The cars? Some of them have busted windshields, missing tires, that one doesn't even have an engine! A car lot full of cars that need a lot of love await you. But that's okay, you knew it'd be a lot of work! And the you look at Lot 5 next door to you and see perfectly running, brand new luxury sedans. Wait. Hold up. How did this happen? It's the luck of the draw. You can't pick your cars, you just have to get them all to the same level to sell them. How much are you enjoying your job right now. Better yet, how much are you enjoying that dude over in Lot 5 who keeps wondering what's so hard about your job. His cars all work fine.

The final problem is that negotiating the actual incentive pay would be a nightmare. If they finally came up with a system to account for the students who switch schools multiple times a year, jump around to different teachers and straddle two different grades, they still have to present all of this to the union. Negotiating it would take years. Why? Because it's a bad idea and the union knows that. Incentive pay for a profession with uncontrollable factors is ridiculous. Should doctors only be paid when their patients live? There would never be another oncologist again! Should police only get paid when every single criminal is off the streets? Should the weatherman only get paid when his forecast is correct? And what about you? Should you only receive compensation when you're perfect?

Pay incentive is not the answer. Money is an issue, but dangling carrots in the faces of teachers is not how to use it. Get our kids more technology. Get more textbooks. Start early intervention for more children. Let's use the money to track individual students the entire time they are in school. Let's see how far they come before we say teachers and schools are to blame for the problem with education in America. And then let's take a good hard look at the societal issues that cause students to fail rather than blame the only ones trying to help them.

Of course, all of these issues don't even touch the possible grade inflation and cheating that could occur to those greedy people who did get into teaching for the money. Would they really be above giving students test answers during an assessment that could mean more money for them? Schools have been caught giving students illegal help without pay attached to it. I wouldn't do it, but I can imagine there are those that would see this as an opportunity to earn extra money by slacking all year and then just giving kids some answers. I don't like the idea of the score audits that would come in the wake of such a plan.


  1. I watched Freakonomics the Movie last night and learned that some teachers in Illinois help their students cheat on standardized tests because the stakes are so high. (Apparently they just fill in the last bubbles on the Scantron if the student left them blank. It pretty much goes undetected, too.) I can see this continuing with incentive pay as well.

  2. I recently came upon your blog and this entry really hits home. I love the comparison to doctors, etc. I am going to forward this blog link to some colleagues as well as some merit-based pay advocates. :)


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