ERIC Identifier: ED457598
Publication Date: 2001-11-00
Author: Lashway, Larry
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Incentives for Accountability. ERIC Digest.
One of the first lessons learned in school is that good work will lead to
gold stars, stickers, or smiley-faces. Generations of teachers have routinely --
and sometimes simplistically -- assumed that the right incentive will boost
student motivation and performance.
Ironically, teachers have resisted attempts to link rewards or sanctions to
their own performance. Although policymakers have often advocated pay for
performance, classroom practitioners have argued that judging performance is
inherently subjective and that teachers do not completely control student
learning. Instead, they have favored a uniform salary schedule while defining
accountability in terms of dedication and hard work.
Today, both policymakers and educators are taking a new look at incentives.
State accountability systems usually include a role for rewards or sanctions,
though actual implementation has been slow. Twenty states offer teachers some
form of reward when achievement rises, but only one considers student
performance data in teacher evaluation. In addition, fourteen states provide for
the takeover or reconstitution of low-performing schools, though few have acted
on this option (Ulrich Boser 2001). For their part, some teacher unions have
signaled a willingness to consider adding performance factors to compensation
systems (Jeff Archer 2001).
This Digest examines the role of rewards and sanctions in school reform and
identifies key issues in implementing incentive systems.
WHAT ROLE DO INCENTIVES PLAY IN TODAY'S ACCOUNTABILITY
The new accountability is based on five linked components (James
Watts and others 1998). First, carefully designed standards set the targets for
achievement, and assessments aligned to the standards determine how well the
standards are being met. Incentives provide rewards or sanctions based on
success in achieving the standards, while results are publicly reported.
Finally, professional development enhances practitioner skills to meet program
In this system, incentives provide the motivational fuel for change. Drawing
on a behaviorist view that is controversial among educators but that many
Americans view as common sense, accountability theorists argue that rewards and
sanctions give practitioners a personal stake in the success of their students,
leading them to focus their energies on that goal. Moreover, incentives give
credibility to standards by backing the organization's rhetoric with tangible
consequences (Larry Lashway 2001).
In practice, however, implementation has often been snagged by political
resistance or practical details, and the motivational effects of incentives
remain unclear, with virtually no evidence that simply dangling a few carrots or
sticks in front of teachers will galvanize them into the enthusiastic pursuit of
standards. In a study of North Carolina's performance-compensation system, Henry
Johnson and colleagues (1999) concluded that bonuses had a positive effect as
one element in a coprehensive accountability system, but were not viewed by
teachers as major incentives.
HOW ARE REWARDS PROVIDED TO TEACHERS?
The idea of paying
teachers for performance has a long and not very successful history. Despite the
persistent public appeal of "merit pay," teachers continue to be paid mostly by
the uniform salary schedule that recognizes only education and experience. Where
merit pay has been tried, it has usually failed because of inadequate funding or
because the criteria were vague or unrelated to performance (Allan Odden and
Carolyn Kelley 1997).
However, advocates of standards-based accountability have argued that an
information-age economy requires compensation based on demonstrated skills
rather than narrowly defined jobs. Odden and Kelley note that today's teachers
have to perform a variety of tasks, each of which requires special expertise,
such as teaching, facilitating meetings, coaching, and assessment. Why not
compensate them for their expertise in these areas?
Odden and Kelley identify two major alternatives to the traditional salary
schedule. The first is competency-based pay, which rewards teachers for
demonstrated skills in teaching, curriculum, and leadership. Some districts and
states are already beginning to provide bonuses to teachers who pass the
rigorous assessment of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.
Other assessments could be based on standards set by the Interstate New Teacher
Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC).
The other alternative is pay for performance, which compensates teachers
according to the achievement of their pupils. Pay for performance is
controversial in theory and exceedingly rare in practice because it raises a
host of practical and philosophical problems. A seemingly basic step such as
defining "achievement" turns out to have multiple pathways, and it is even less
clear how (or if) performance can be adjusted for socioeconomic factors (Charles
Clotfelter and Helen Ladd 1996).
Teachers worry about fairness, arguing that achievement is affected not only
by the quality of instruction but by student motivation, family support, class
size, and availability of instructional resources. Therefore,
pay-for-performance systems almost invariably offer money as special bonuses
added to existing compensation. In addition, states typically offer rewards to
schools rather than individual teachers (Boser).
WHAT INCENTIVES ARE APPLIED TO SCHOOLS?
Teaching is a
collective enterprise; student performance on a fourth-grade assessment depends
not just on how well the fourth-grade teacher has done, but on what has happened
the three prior years. For that reason, many accountability systems focus on
schools rather than individual teachers. In Kentucky, for example, schools
exceeding state targets for improved performance are awarded money that can be
spent as the faculty determines (Tom Willis and colleagues 1999).
Another strategy applies sanctions to schools that consistently perform at a
low level, replacing the existing management team with state appointees, or
reconstituting the schools by transferring practitioners or requiring them to
reapply for their positions. The U.S Department of Education concluded in 1998
that "there are no conclusive data demonstrating that the threat of
reconstitution is an effective motivator for change" (Kathryn Doherty and Sarah
Abernathy 1998). Low-performing schools may have such a long legacy of failure
that simply changing the staff is inadequate.
The American Federation of Teachers (1998) has supported reconstitution when
done as part of a comprehensive reform effort. The AFT cited cases such as
Corpus Christi, Texas, where two-thirds of the staff in low-performing schools
were transferred out (the other third had to reapply), but the schools were then
given extra resources and attention. By the time of the report, nine of eleven
reconstituted schools were performing at or above the statewide rate of
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE INCENTIVE SYSTEMS?
effective? Reward systems are new enough and scarce enough that evidence is very
limited. Certainly few data point to a clear cause-and-effect relationship
between teacher incentives and student performance. However, incentives may be
one piece of the school-reform puzzle.
A study by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education concluded that
teachers involved in some form of pay for performance appeared to have a better
understanding of accountability goals and greater commitment to them than to
other reform efforts (Carolyn Kelley and colleagues). In other words, incentives
focused attention on the goals.
The study also found, however, that performance-based programs were less
effective when the goals conflicted with other organizational values, when the
bonus was too small ($600 or less), or when teachers didn't believe the money
would really be forthcoming or didn't believe they could help students achieve
Others have noted that even if incentives are motivational, the effects may
be perverse. For example, offering rewards to individual teachers may lead to
competition at a time when schools are encouraging teachers to collaborate
(Clotfelter and Ladd). Another unintended effect may be narrow teaching to the
Finally, while rewards undeniably influence behavior, human motivation is
complex. "Expectancy" theorists point out that the actual incentive may be less
important than the way people perceive it. No matter how enticing the reward, it
will not motivate teachers who believe they are unable to reach the desired goal
(Kelley and colleagues 2000). And while teachers certainly appreciate money,
there is little evidence that it drives their behavior in the classroom. They
seem more likely to be gratified by "psychic rewards" such as small but
unmeasurable signs of individual student progress (Lashway).
WHAT ARE THE FEATURES OF WELL-DESIGNED INCENTIVE
With some unions now willing to explore alternative compensation
systems, schools may have a rare opportunity to add performance elements to
their accountability systems. Many teachers still view incentives with
suspicion, however, and districts should move forward cautiously. Three
guidelines are of particular importance.
First, there must be clear agreement on the desired results and how they will
be measured (Clotfelter and Ladd). The goal is not to increase motivation
generally but to focus energy and effort on specific outcomes (typically
Second, there are many ways of applying incentives, and districts should
consider which options would work best in their situation. For example, it may
be easier to begin with competency-based pay than with true performance-based
compensation. Similarly, most researchers strongly recommend basing performance
rewards on school rather than individual performance (Odden and Kelley;
Clotfelter and Ladd). The Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the
University of Wisconsin offers online resources on compensation systems that
districts may find helpful (www.wcer.wisc.edu/cpre/tcomp).
Finally, rewards and sanctions do not provide the kind of silver bullet that
will transform attitudes or jump-start a dysfunctional school. Ultimately,
boosting student achievement requires a comprehensive approach that includes
teacher development, adequate resources, and organizational support (Johnson and
colleagues; American Federation of Teachers). Done well, incentives can play a
useful supporting role; done carelessly, they can create dissension that diverts
attention from the central goal of improving student achievement.
American Federation of Teachers. "Raising Student
Achievement: An Internet Resource Guide for Redesigning Low-Performing Schools." 1998. Available online at www.aft.org/edissues/rsa/guide/index.htm
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