A lack of teacher buy-in can cripple performance pay plans, according to a recent study. In 2013, a team of researchers led by Kun Yuan, Vi-Nhuan Le, and Daniel McCaffrey analyzed three different incentive pay programs, all of which failed to connect with their teachers:

  • The School-wide Performance Bonus Program (SPBP) in New York City public schools, from 2007-08 to 2009-10;
  • The Pilot Project on Team Incentives (PPTI) in Austin, Texas, from 2008-2009; and
  • The Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) in Nashville, Tennessee, from 2006-07 to 2008-09.

The SPBP program in New York City gave school-wide bonuses based on student test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and reported school environment. Austin’s PPTI program was team-oriented – they split teachers into randomized teams and rewarded them based on team effectiveness. In Nashville, POINT gave bonuses based on a fixed threshold of student achievement.

The authors found several problems across the three programs, but they could all be characterized as a lack of teacher support.

  • Teachers didn’t feel that student achievement on standardized tests reflected teaching skills.[i] The vast majority of the teachers in these programs thought that rewards based on test scores didn’t capture important aspects of teacher performance.
  • A majority of teachers doubted that their personal efforts would lead to the expected student achievement goals.
  • While many teachers reported an interest in winning the bonus, most of them reported that that interest had no effect on their teaching.[ii]

“It is difficult to obtain teachers’ support of incentive pay programs if they think the performance measure is problematic.” – Yuan et al.

Lack of teacher buy-in figures into the results of each incentive program. There was no evidence that the programs increased the already high number of hours teachers worked, no impact on teacher behavior, and no association between test preparation in the classroom and student achievement. This was true regardless of the size of the reward – for example, “Although the average bonus size of POINT tripled that of SPBP, teachers in the two programs showed similar attitudes about the motivating effect of bonuses.”[iii]

The study finds incentive pay programs need teachers to be on board from the beginning. For a program to work, teachers have to feel as though they can succeed within the system, and they can’t think the system is judging their performance arbitrarily.

They authors also caution that monetary bonuses that are primarily based on test scores might not be enough to change teacher behavior. “Compensation tied to career lattice and other professional growth and goals or compensation for work in challenging schools might be alternatives to bonus-based compensation reform.”[iv]

But regardless of the metrics used to determine performance pay, it’s clear that the teachers have to support it first for the program to succeed.

[i] Kun Yuan, Vi-Nhuan Le, Daniel F. McCaffrey, Julie A. Marsh, Laura S. Hamilton, Brian M. Stecher, and Matthew G. Springer. (2013). Incentive Pay Programs Do Not Affect Teacher Motivation or Reported Practices: Results From Three Randomized Studies. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 1. Available at http://web-app.usc.edu/web/rossier/publications/97/EDUCATIONAL%20EVALUATION%20AND%20POLICY%20ANALYSIS-2013-Yuan-3-22.pdf
[ii] See note i.
[iii] See note i.
[iv] See note i.