One of the hottest ideas in education policy these days is tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests. The theory is that offering up cash bonuses will prompt unmotivated and unaccountable teachers to get their acts together and do better by our kids.

The first comprehensive study of this approach, from the Nashville public schools, showed an effect somewhere between minuscule and nonexistent. The students of incentivized teachers did no better than the students of teachers paid regular salaries.

Now an even bigger study is out from Roland Fryer, a prominent Harvard economist and an architect of some of these programs. In an impressive paper published last week, he examines the effects of pay-for-performance in the New York City public schools. Here, from the paper’s abstract (and with italics added), are his key findings:

“Financial incentives for teachers to increase student performance is an increasingly popular education policy around the world. This paper describes a school-based randomized trial in over two-hundred New York City public schools designed to better understand the impact of teacher incentives on student achievement. I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

I’m all for experimenting with new solutions. But it should be clear from these results — not to mention, from 50 years of research on human motivation and performance — that improving American education will take bolder and less convenient solutions that dangling a few carrots in front of our teachers. (You can read Fryer’s full paper here.)

69 Responses to “Does giving teachers bonuses improve student performance?”

  1. Kel says:

    Good one ! I’m not surprised. Perhaps another way of looking at this is that no amount of money is enough to make people care – if they care enough to do a good job, it’s for reasons other than their compensation. We observe this with nurses as well as teachers – some really care about their patients/students, others not so much. Which ones do the patients/students respond to ? Those who care.

  2. Chaa Creek says:

    I thought that incentives would increase student performance. What can work then?

  3. Bonus/merit pay may change teacher motivation, but the concern should be changing student motivation; away from grades and towards intrinsic rewards and you will create an organic learning experience where students feel connected to the knowledge they are creating.

  4. Tom says:

    The problem may be better addressed by focusing on improving family dynamics and home. I believe a larger influence on student performance is family and home, not teachers.

  5. As an educator in an “strategic compensation” school district, I would have to say that there could be an argument both ways here. Since the inception of merit pay at our unique school district, we have seen increases in overall achievement and have been effectively closing the achievement gap. The graduation rates in our high schools have increased to a point well above state average. That being said it is hard to say whether this is an effect of the merit pay or of the increased amount and quality of professional development here in Eagle County Schools. The teachers in our district are superb and work very hard as a matter of pride.

  6. Thanks for this, Dan. There ARE educational models out there that work. I encourage people to look at the school in Seattle I co-founded in 1994, Puget Sound Community School (, that Dan mentioned in “Drive.” One of our administrators posts daily to a blog in order to further consider this topic. Check it out at

  7. Erica Wang says:

    As a former teacher, I would have to agree that tying student performance to teacher’s pay will not make marked improvements. Our issues with education in America do not have any “one” root problem. Money just seems to be the easiest answer we American’s throw at problems. 🙂

  8. Andy Blythe says:

    It’s interesting. Folks pull out the old college example to defend school choice, charters, etc., but our highly successful college system does not operate on teacher merit pay. College professors are not given bonuses if their students pass standardized tests or not. Let’s pick an argument and follow it through consistently. The reason this doesn’t happen is that there are no successful systems of any kind which, over time, consistently flourish based on merit pay. This just might be because it doesn’t work. It is an over-convenient solution to a deeply complex systemic set of issues.

  9. Ron says:

    Attempting to explain an increase in student achievement to teacher incentives is kind of like saying that wet streets cause rain. In my experience, providing teachers with student assessment data, scheduling time for them to meet as a grade group to compare and discuss their class data will encourage teachers to formulate a plan and motivate each other far more than a bonus.

  10. Alexis Robin says:

    I think what can work are the elements of purpose, ensuring kids understand the bigger purpose in getting an education. We’ve used the tips from Drive with our 5 year old twins and the change in motivation and behavior has been remarkable.

  11. David Wees says:

    @David Russell

    I think that professional development, when done properly, and which includes teacher input, would be a far more valuable way to spend the money that merit pay would cost.

  12. Jane says:

    My biggest problem with this concept is that tying bonuses directly to performance in standarized tests might shift teachers focus to teaching students how to take tests and not necessarily provide them with the skills they really need.

  13. Henrik Brameus says:

    You could turn the question around and say “Do teachers who improve student performance deserve bonuses?” I am pretty sure that most people will say yes.

    Of course, part of that also means that we have to define what we mean by student performance. I don’t believe that a standardized test will show the whole picture, and it will give teachers an incentive to teach for the test, rather than teach for life long knowledge.

    Simply put, we need more comprehensive KPIs for teacher performance. And when they perform well, money is not the only possible reward.

  14. Mike Brice says:

    When I was in high school, the teacher’s motivation didn’t matter. I was motivated to earn high marks to please my parents.

    The teacher-focused model can never achieve what positive parental (and maybe a little negative if I received low marks) can achieve.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t something money can buy.

  15. Tom McGee says:

    A learning revolution. That is what we need. The entire system from day 1 through being certified to teach is shot through and through with external motivation. If Daniel is right, this extinguishes intrinsic drives such a curiosity and generosity over time. One example:

    I work with an organization that develops large scale mentoring programs for Global companies with thousands of employees. Thousands of mentors voluteer in these organizations.

    In edcuational circles, mentors are a few certified experts who expect to be paid for mentoring. This approach is not scalable to meet the learning needs of practicing teachers. We have not been able to convince the educational establishment that teachers would volunteer to help each other in a similar fashion to the hundreds of thousands of busy corporate executives and managers we work with. Perhaps generosity is on the rise in corporate circles, but on the wane in educational circles?

    To me this seems backwards?

  16. mattmc says:

    Reading the paper now, it doesn’t sound like it was about individual incentives- or about the performance of the individual teachers, and the whole basis for it was pretty flawed.

    “Each participating school could earn $3,000 for every UFT-represented sta! member, which the school could distribute at its own discretion, if the school met the annual performance target set by the DOE based on school report card scores.”

    “Each school had the power to decide whether all of the rewards would be given to a small subset of teachers with the highest value-added, whether the winners of the rewards would be decided by lottery, and virtually anything in-between.”

    “To our surprise, an overwhelming majority of the schools decided on a group incentive scheme that varied the individual bonus amount only by the position held in the school.”

    It sort of boggles the mind that they wasted the opportunity to do a good study of individual incentives and performance here. On the other hand, they did show that group incentives were ineffective at meeting DOE goals. Of course, these goals aren’t value added, so the goal they were trying to meet was ridiculous in the first place.

  17. L Armstrong says:

    I taught for 18 years in East Los Angeles. My colleagues were the most dedicated group of people you could find anywhere. Many of us were hired during Operation Talent Search. Though we taught in elementary school, we were honor students in tough subject matter fields such as history, English, mathematics, music, and art. My father was a teacher. My mother-in-law was a teacher. My husband was a teacher. The implication that we were “bad” in some way because we taught in schools that served challenging populations is hurtful. Our transiency rate was very high. Many students entered our classrooms after the semester started and left before it ended. Some who took state tests had been in our classrooms only a few days or weeks. As time went on, there was less and less instructional consistency across the district, and even within the school, so all of this movement was disastrous. It was fed by a policy that had nothing to do with education. It took a number of months to evict a family for nonpayment of rent. They would move into a rental, stay for that number of months, and then move to the next, taking 4+ students with them from school to school. Support and remedial services could not keep up. This was just one problem. Any urban teacher could tell you many more.

  18. Learning is less about the teachers and more about the students. If education policy is really going to be effective, it’s going to need to take into account that students hold the power in their learning. I’m not sure how, but somewhere along the way, someone decided it was the teacher’s responsibility and now most policy is focused on pressuring the teacher to teach better — as if that is possible.

    A really good example of ‘student-driven’ learning is a school in Russia that’s run completely by students. They run the administrative tasks, they build the buildings (to which they sleep and study in), they cook the food, and they teach each other. The school originated on the idea of Mikhail Petrovich Shchetinin. If you look up his name, you’re sure to find more information about the school.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  19. Lillian Arleque, Ed.D. says:

    I was a teacher in public schools for 24 years. I quickly discovered that there are many things that teachers cannot control. One issue that very few people mention is that many children enter school with numerous problems that include learning disabilities, low intelligence, behavior problems, a lack of student motivation and parent indifference – and from experience I know that all of these issues can inhibit academic progress. The conventional “wisdom” has been to blame teachers when, in fact, many of the problems cannot be solved by teacher intervention alone. Teacher blaming is an easy way out. It is not about money but about responsibility and accountability for all involved… children, parents, schools and community.

  20. Trevor says:

    Thanks for these links Daniel – unfortunately, no surprises. The direction of current ideas in education in both your country and mine (Australia) is towards rather simpleminded standardised testing as a way of assessing educational effectiveness. A fascinating book on this subject is by Diane Ravitch, describing her road to Damascus moment: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. I can’t recommend this book too highly. I review it here:

  21. Extrinsic motivators, by nature, rarely work. It’s no surprise that the teachers receiving bonuses didn’t score any better than their counterparts.

    I think bonuses, across the board, are relatively the same. Performance based financial incentives only slightly move the dial, if at all. Some professions are more respondant to extrinsic motivators, and that is largely due to their social make up and personality type. Sales folks for example, may perform slightly better with a bonus plan in place. When that plan is removed, and base salary adjusted, I am going to guess that performance remains about the same.

    I am a fan of pay-for-performance plans, only when the pay matches the goals, and the goals are hard measurements – not approximations, and that the goals are based on the individuals’ performance. I’ve had performance plans based on other peoples’ efforts and all it did was create animocity and illwill.

    In the case of a test score pay-for-performance plans, I’m not sure that the behavioral and cultural make up of teachers matches that of a bonus-based program. Teachers go into their career to help and nurture (at least they should), not because they expect to become filty rich. Their successes are defined by the children’s successes, and that isn’t always based on answers A, B, C, or D on a 400 question exam. Teachers are ones that pride themselves on helping others – an intrinsic motivator.

    The question then becomes, how can the system better reward teachers with intrinsic motivators. Having teacher of the year awards is a great idea that has happened for decades. It is often based on popularity and longevity in most school systems – at least that has been my observation. I don’t think parents and students play big enough parts in determining who “teacher of the year” should be – or even “Teacher of the month”. Let’s get back to the PTA and involving all parties – parents, teachers, administrators, and students. When the 4 groups get together and help each other out, and support each other, the real teaching begins to evolve in classrooms, and the students end up winners.

    Let’s teach our children that answering “B” for question #173 isn’t the real world. Let’s instead teach our children that collective opinions, the feedback loop, and conversations are what makes the real world tick. Then, education will have evolved.

  22. Ed Castillo says:

    Interesting studies….

  23. Neil R. Cowan says:

    As a former veteran teacher and now an education consultant, I work in high poverty school systems and am in and out of lots of classrooms and observe lots of teachers in action. The vast majority of teachers are competent, fewer are excellent, and, definitely, there are some that are quite weak. But the notion that pay incentives will make anyone work harder or smarter is flawed.

    Look at other professions. If you paid a doctor or dentist more money would they work harder or smarter to heal you? I’d like to think not. Would a public defender work harder for a client for an extra bonus? I think that most people work up to the levels of what their abilities, knowledge and skills allow.

    There were flaws with the incentive approach: One was the previously mentioned lack of individual incentive. A second was the size of the offer. I’m not so sure the amount was a sufficient motivation. It might have represented only about 4-5% of a teacher’s salary. If carrot motivation is really possible, is that a large enough carrot to have a teacher dramatically alter her behavior?

    But I don’t believe that is the issue.

    The real flaw of this picture is trying to measure teacher efficacy by one standardized test. There are simply too many other variables at play:
    ~learner motivation (other interests like art or baseball)
    ~learner’s ability to persist in a testing situation
    ~working conditions and resources at a school
    ~parental support for education
    ~language barriers
    ~access to professional development for teacher (new ideas and ways of improving teaching practice)
    ~support from administrators and colleagues

    A bit of extra money (taxed, comes to about $43 a week, give or take) can’t overcome the obstacles of the above list…easily.

    The current political environment around education is looking for simplistic answers to complex issues. This one clearly failed. Too bad it cost so much money (I read it was about $75 million!), which could have provided a lot more support than it bought.

  24. Mike Sporer says:

    The part that is of most interest to me is tying everything to test scores. Testing tied to student scores incentivizes teachers to teach to the test, and memorization rather than critical thinking moves to the top of the priority list. That simply doesn’t work!

    Everyone needs to read “Drive”.

  25. Teresa says:

    I also am not surprised by these results Daniel has presented.

    My objection to the wave of support that incentive-based pay plans have been collecting is due to the underlying logic of these plans, as I see it. These plans are based on the belief that proposed bonuses will result in higher student achievement because teachers will be motivated to work harder toward this result. This perspective then must be based on the assumption that teachers are not already working as hard as they can to produce the highest student achievement possible.

    From my perspective, this must be the underlying assumption; otherwise there would be no purpose for the incentive … to motivate teachers to work harder, to do a better job. This assumption is the basis for my objection to these plans. The teachers that I know are literally already working as hard as they can through as many hours as they can. Of course, things can always be improved as they continue learning new methods and growing in skills. However, most definitely any factor standing in the way of higher achievement for their students is not the level of work, effort, motivation, or care that they are already bringing to their work.

    Notice the last statement does not say there is nothing that teachers or schools could do differently to improve student achievement. However, there are many factors involved (with possibly the most powerful of these found outside the school building) that would have to be addressed in order to create wide-spread improved student achievement.

    From my view, it is just an insult to teachers to imply that students would be doing better if teachers would just work harder–that the only thing keeping American students from achieving more is their teachers who are ineffective and should be working harder; and teachers could be motivated to go ahead and work harder just by enticing them with a bonus of a couple thousand dollars.

    I am not saying that there are no teachers who are less than stellar or less effective than they should be; of course there must be some, as there would be in any profession or industry. However, when speaking generally of the profession across the country, I believe these individuals are fewer and farther between than the national discourse would have us believe over the past few years.

    Just because we keep hearing the sound-bite through the media that our schools are full of incapable, inefficient, or lazy teachers does not actually make this so. However, as it gets repeated over and over again it becomes believed and accepted. Then after wearing the public down into this way of thinking, it starts to see incentive-pay as a possible solution for motivating our ineffective or lazy teachers (as proclaimed) into working harder and doing a better job for the students.

    Seriously, does the country really believe this? Each person should simply think about their own personal experience. As each of us walks into the individual schools that our children attend, have you encountered a building full of ineffective, lazy teachers who don’t care intensely about the students’ achievement? I have to believe that if the situation as described in public discourse was the reality that most Americans are experiencing in their communities and their own schools, a unified public outcry (not an outcry of politicians, public figures, or “experts”) would have already been experienced.

  26. Andre Varga says:

    – Long Live Motivation 3.0!
    Great job, DANIEL!

  27. Christian Lemke says:

    I reflected on ‘autonomy-mastery-purpose’ as applied to my teaching job during your Waterloo talk on motivation a few weeks ago. With the exception of not being able to choose my own colleagues (and being ruled by the clock, obviously) I’m very autonomous within my class. I’m encouraged to improve my craft (always) and I certainly feel a sense of purpose to encourage thinking in our young people.

    Basically, I do simple cognitive tasks all day, so it’s a good thing money is “off the table” – I’m paid well enough that I’m not distracted by having to sell myself, or position myself within the organization for financial gain.

    I’m also paid well enough to cover the expectations of our educational law. Ed law, in fact, be the beginning of the answer to the US meta-cognitive educational deficit, but that’s another story.

    Apart from the obvious, performance pay is a bad idea, because good teaching is very difficult to quantify, or to set a criteria to. The masses will want to see improved grades, or higher pass rates. Both are exceedingly easy to manipulate and will keep the poorer teachers rich in bonuses, while the very best teachers will continue to quietly toil with the less clean, less academically inclined students with less hope.

    Making good students better is really really easy. Even money-motivated information disseminating teaching units can do it, and with a sound-bite-friendly criteria as a basis for performance pay, they’ll be rolling in dough. Now consider the teacher who improves a student’s grade from 5 to 45, and his attendance from 40 absences to fewer than 20. This student now has a hope of contributing to society, instead of taking from it, and his change in academic achievement is incredible. His teacher will not be collecting any rewards, however. Nor will she bother pleading her case. She’ll be too busy working with the next of the hopeless cases. And the next.

    I don’t know what the answer is exactly, but what it certainly is not, is dissuading great teachers from shoring up the frightfully low achievers, by introducing merit pay.

  28. As a teacher in Australia for the past five years I support the evidence in these findings. Teachers do not become teachers for the money or holidays. If they do, they usually leave the occupation within the first year. It is because they have a passion for helping, nurturing and fostering the development of young people. Therefore, the motivation is in the occupation itself and the ‘rewards’ teachers find rewarding enough are their own personal breakthroughs with the individual students. These breakthroughs and progress are based on each student’s personal situation and their ability to learn and show an understanding of that learning in their own way. Standardised testing does not deliver accurate results for the individual and is not a true indication of their ability or progress.

    To motivate teachers, freedom and flexibility to exercise their craft in their own way is required. This will empower the teacher to take control of themselves and allow them to instil their passion of teaching and educating their pupils. This in turn will have a direct correlation to the students performance.

    Watch this brilliant and informative RSA Animate clip about what really motivates us.

    – Russell O’Neill

  29. I wrote an article today inspired by your post:

    Thanks for helping to shed light on what motivates us and how innovation and creativity are the hallmark of the new economy.

  30. I’m a former teacher who earned money for both successful completion of staff development and Outstanding Teacher. While it didn’t motivate me to be an outstanding teacher, it sure felt like a giant “thank you” for all my hard work. However, the money for staff development did help – it paid for the class and gave me gas money. It wasn’t much but it motivated me to take the classes which in turn, made me a better teacher.

    I’m concerned that teachers are always evaluated on student test scores. We need a more well-rounded look at student performance. Growth from beginning to end of year would be much better than comparing one class of students to another class.

    I don’t think we should nix the idea of pay for performance entirely. Just rethink it.

  31. Mark Graban says:

    I’m not surprised by those findings at all. To the first commenter, it’s not as simple as getting teachers to “care.” My mother was a teacher in an inner-city district and she cared as much as anyone. Sometimes things are stacked against you as a teacher – kids with rotten home lives, the teacher in the grade before did a crappy job but kids got advanced anyway. To hold a teacher “accountable” for a system in which they are only a small piece is ridiculous, if not cruel.

    Dan’s work is great, but I’d also invite readers to look up the books of Alfie Kohn, who is the world’s expert on this topic, I think.

  32. Robert Benson says:

    Let teachers be creative…get them away from the prescribed world they work in. It gets worse everyday! I would rather evaluate teachers on their ability to challenge a child to create or solve a real world problem or evaluate them on their creativity in lesson design…than to watch them robot around. I would bet if you offered up a little would go a LONG way. Freedom is what we humans like!

  33. I worked at a school that actually did this and unfortunately it led to some teachers doing some pretty illegal things with the tests. Some teachers went back and erased and filled in bubbles for their students. Some teachers did not properly follow the directions they give their students and would read a reading test to them and other teachers had given answers to their students while the students were taking the test.

    What may sound like a good idea sometimes in actuality isn’t. Why should a 3rd grade teacher get an incentive when all of the teachers in Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade are actually part of the child’s performance. It is crazy.

  34. Barb VanDeren says:

    I worry that no one will want to teach the lower achieving or special needs children.

    Also, if teachers are competing for a limited amount of funds, they will not be so eager to share their ideas that really work. Newer less experienced teachers will be saddled with the most difficult to teach or reach students.

    Finally, it seems unfair to diminish a teacher’s ability to earn the bonus because students simply don’t show up to class. Student attendance is a driving force in their ability to achieve, and if they don’t show up, it’s difficult to teach them.

  35. matt nelson says:

    Go to a salary cap model.

    Each principle has a salary cap. He can develop a strategy to attract talent. Let’s say he wants to blow 20% of his cap on a three time golden apple winner and then leverage that golden apple winner as a player/coach in his school? So be it…then he could fill in his roster with young up-and-coming (less expensive) teachers…

    It sounds crazy at first…but is it really?

  36. I have been thinking abou tthis topic for a few days, and your post inspired this reaction on my blog.

    Thank you for your thought provoking work.

  37. Kris Mac says:

    This goes right along with the NY Times call this week to raise the status of teachers in society. Who thinks teachers go into the profession for the money?! (Though the low pay does prevent people from becoming teachers in the first place.) Actually acknowledging that many teachers have mastery of this domain and turning to them to come up with and implement solutions to fix our schools would be far more effective than bonuses. Instead they get burned out trying to implement the latest “silver bullet” they know won’t work when it comes down the pike. Or good teachers get burned out defending themselves to administrators and parents who do not recognize that perhaps they may know what they are doing. The effort to weed out bad teachers is needed, but the media seems to loose site of the fact there are really amazing teachers out there.

  38. Daniel says:

    The blogger forgot to mention there is literature showing positive results for this kind of policy in other countries. Indeed, Fryer writes in his introduction:

    “The paper concludes with a (necessarily) speculative discussion about what can explain the stark results, especially when one compares them with the growing evidence from developing countries.”

    He references three such articles (two of which show good results and the third with only short-term results).

    So the discussion should be why bonus pay doesn’t work IN THE USA, not why it doesn’t work period. As a Brazilian engaged in the issue, I don’t feel compelled at all to discard the idea, nor do I think you (north americans) should before more thorough discussion. I’m waiting for some professors here do similar studies with local programs.

  39. Angie says:

    Maybe we are trying to motivate the wrong corner of the educational triangle. I was taught in my undergraduate work that a student’s education consists of three components: the student, the parents, and the teacher. Focusing accountability just on the teacher, assumes that the other two areas are holding up their part of the equation. But are they? In some cases, yes…but not to extent I think we would like to see.
    Don’t get me wrong…there are things we need to change in education. But I think focusing only on one area that needs to change isn’t going to solve the overall problem. We need to take a magnifying glass to our society and parents need to take a good hard look at their role in all of this as well. Yes, I do have school age children so I am one of those patents who need to assess my role in my child’s education and what I can do to help my child succeed.

  40. Denny Jacobs says:

    I find it humorous, that there is a idea to attempt “token economies” on improving the performance of the teacher. It does not work, for long, with students. Why then with teachers?

  41. Scott says:


    As a veteran and successful teacher of twenty years, I agree with the findings, however, better pay/incentives, would have kept me in the classroom, rather than leaving to start my own business.

    It will not make a teacher better, but it can keep successful teachers in place, working with students.

    Thoughts anyone?

  42. Christian Lemke says:

    I’m really enjoying this discussion. Thank you Daniel (et al!) I can’t help thinking that, without knowing how to easily measure ‘good’ teachers, (assuming that we agree improvements to students’ grades/pass rates are a fallible measure) then, how can we reward ‘good’ teaching fairly? It simply may not be possible.

    Matt Nelson suggests a salary cap, which I think may not work because of the inequities in leadership…popular principals will attract popular teachers. Sorry: popular doesn’t necessarily equal pedagogically sound, nor does it come with a willingness to wade into the educational fray with the yucky kids, unfortunately.

    Scott mentions increasing pay. I completely agree. Again, as a Canadian, I think we’re paid really well, and encouraged to educate ourselves through a variety of incentive programs (as an earlier post alluded to). When money is no longer an issue, the best cognitive work gets done. Scott may not have been able to resist his entrepreneurial spirit entirely, but it sounds like he’d have remained in the classroom much longer at least.

  43. Gene says:

    As a teacher, what would motivate me would be if parents, administrators and students treated me with respect and dignity. I am paid well enough, and started my career as a “gung-ho” teacher, but over time, became disappointed with the way that teachers are treated at all levels.

    Treating me as a human being would make all the difference towards my attitude.

  44. Paul says:

    Anyone who has read Dan’s book could have predicted this outcome. I have taught for nearly 10 years, and while more money would help my family from living from paycheck to paycheck, I didn’t get into education to make money, but to make a difference. I have a drawer in my desk at school filled with thoughtful notes and cards from teenagers–those are my bonuses.

  45. Katherine says:

    Eleven or so years ago when I was in graduate school getting my teacher certification, I had to go and observe classes in my area (art) at an elementary school. To help the teacher out, I would work with some of the more boisterous kids. In one class I made a deal with a student that if he was doing his work, and behaving, I would sit at his table with him. However, in the next class the agreement I made with the most disruptive student was that as long as he wasn’t disrupting the class I would stay away.

    Sometimes to motivate students, you really need to spend time with them. For me, a bonus would be great, but what I would love even more is an administration that takes its teachers’ word more seriously than its students; more time to prepare; and fewer students in a class. Those things would help me do a better job more than money (although with the money only, perhaps I could dress better).

  46. Gene says:

    “would take its teachers’ word more seriously…” (Katherine”

    I have to agree. What will history say about a society of adults who lived in fear of their children? We must consider what they have to say, and accomodate their needs, but that does not mean that we let their expectations and demands dictate policy; for they speak from a lack of experience and still developing critical thinking skills.

  47. Vivian says:

    After43 years in education, I have not met one teacher who was motivated to do a better job because she/he would be paid more. However, good teachers need to be rewarded for jobs well done as those in other professions are. They hold the future of many young people in their hands.

  48. Ross says:

    Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives conducted a scientifically rigorous examination of the impact of merit pay for teacher on student achievement. The principal result being that, given the limited scope of the effects and apparent lack of persistence, performance incentives did not lead overall to large, lasting changes in student achievement as measured by the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.

  49. Julia Aquino says:

    How about hiring motivated, creative, teachers? What is really sad is what happens to the underfinanced schools where the students have little parental involvement so they under-perform at school. Teachers don’t have the resources to teach them effectively. The students don’t perform well, so the teachers are not bonused….soooo….the teachers (motivated and creative) look to move to a school where they will be bonused – leaving those children left behind.

    This is why I struggle to pay for private school. It is truly heartbreaking that this is the direction we are going in for paying our teachers what they deserve.

  50. Ann says:

    I am against performance pay and I am a teacher. I have seen performance pay lead my colleagues to do unscrupulous things just so they can “get their bonus”, as one colleague put it. Not once in the conversation that she and I had, did she state that she wanted to see them do well. Her motivations were for her own financial gain. The way I see it, she should work in the private sector where that is expected. I’ve read other postings mention about family involvement..THAT indeed is key, as you can have the best teacher in the world, but without anyone at home to support your endeavors, you are sailing on a shipped destined to sink.

  51. Jameson says:

    Even if incentive pay for teachers wasn’t and extremely flawed strategy, it still wouldn’t matter. Politicians and school administrators are trying to grasping at straws to try to fix the existing system. The existing system, an obsolete remnant of early 20th late 19th century industrial ages is the real problem.

    Our schools are designed to mass produce, mildly educated, obedient factory workers, which in the 1940-1970’s it did a reasonable good job of. However what we need now are technological in information craftsmen, not robots.

    I believe we need to begin looking at education as more of an apprenticeship, where we provide the student with the basic skills necessary for them to being to follow their own path. While I am not a proponent of homeschooling, I believe that one of the reasons home schooled students tend to excel on standardized testing is for the very reason that their education has more in common with and “educational apprenticeship” than one sizes fits all, top down, micromanaged factory school curriculum. The home schooled get the basics, and then the freedom to follow there interests.

    Teach reading, writing, compression and math and then encourage the kids to explore.

  52. Mara says:

    I would agree that a pay incentive would not increase test scores for a very obvious reason. Teachers, good teachers who care about student learning and helping students get the best education possible, did not start teaching because of the money. They started teaching because they loved to teach and that was satisfaction enough. The only reason I could imagine that an increase in pay would help students test scores is that teachers would be able so spend more time on developing great curriculum instead of having second jobs. But if a teaching is not teaching well because the pay is too low, they should not be teaching at all.

  53. Dana says:

    Incentive pay doesn’t work and isn’t fair. A teacher is either already motivated or un-motivatable. It’s unfair because different teachers can get different kids. I have always volunteered to get more sped kids and the ELLs. I am used to working with them and I am willing to work with their IEP teachers with them. So my classes are weighted down with the kids who do more poorly on the standardized tests. Why should I be penalized for going above and beyond? Socioeconomic status of the school is also a HUGE factor. Poorer schools tend to have poor scores and it’s not always the teacher. Home life/support system is the biggest factor. I teach at a school in a fairly affluent area and my scores are top notch but I also spent five years in an inner-city school with very poor scores. I’m the same teacher, doing the same stuff, teaching the same subjects.

  54. Matt Nadel says:

    As a student about to leave the public education system and head to college, it seems to me that overall performance, not simply test scores, would absolutely improve with extra incentives offered to teachers. My mother is a teacher, and although our retirement system here (Colorado) pays fairly well for state workers who have been in the system for 30+ years, there is no doubt in my mind that the happiness of a teacher is directly corrolated to their salary. While many of you may say that happy teachers are not necessarily good teachers, I would beg to differ. Outside of my my household, holding conversations with my current teachers, it’s easy to see how teachers are simply not happy due to the pay cuts, larger class sizes, and decreased benefit options. There is simply a MAJOR feeling of indifference that floats around the staff of our school now that they are expected to have students perform better with even less resources then before. I have seen first hand that teachers who are happy are not only more respected by their own students in the classroom, but also have more motivation to be better teachers and to receive better results out of their students. Teachers pursue there career because they want to be around adolescents and make a difference in their lives, and it is of no suprise that their happiness level would increase if their success rates did go up.
    Simply put, extra tutoring that students might need costs money, and there are very few cases in which students who receive outside help do not improve in that certain subject. These tutors charge high rates and wouldn’t take an extra hour out of the day because they felt good about it, it’s because they are getting that extra little bit of money. With public education funding at an all time low, it’s easy to see how these teachers simply don’t feel the need to be the absolute best they can be. Incentives help whether statistics show it or not!

    • Aimee says:


      As a veteran teacher for 17 years I have to say that you missed part of Daniel Pink’s major point. Before we can begin discussions about incentives we have to pay people “enough”. The problem with teachers at your school, and most everywhere else, is the fact that they do not receive enough pay to begin with. (See Ann and Dana’s comments) If merit pay were offered at your school many teachers would be motivated to cheat and lie for monetary gain. Plus, how do we equitably reward teachers when some are dealing with far more difficult student populations?

  55. Lauren says:

    As the daughter of two teachers, both of whom taught in the same school district for 30 and 37 years, I can assure you this system is not a one-size-fits-all solution. My father was the outspoken president of their teacher’s union in their poverty-stricken rural school district, and both him and my mother were regularly given the “problem” students in their classrooms as punishment for fighting for their rights. How would compensation for standardized test scores be fair when the overwhelming majority of the students in one classroom were learning disabled and anything but standardized? There would need to be some sort of assurance that equal numbers of high performing and low performing students were in each classroom. Should my parents be punished with lower compensation because they fought for ALL the teachers to receive better benefits and better wages in the first place?

    What many people aren’t taking into account is the role that home life plays in education. My mother has many students in single parent households or being raised by grandparents, and unfortunately has a few students every year with incarcerated parents. No matter how good of a teacher she is, these kids aren’t focused on school.

    I don’t think there are any teachers who went into the profession for the money, and while having more of it certainly would be nice I’m sure, there are many more factors that come into play here.

    This might sound like a good idea on the surface, but anyone who really knows how the school systems work would be outraged.

  56. Dan,

    There is so much talk about improving education (which I support), and lasering in on teacher performance. In at least one of our great states, overpaid and overcompensated teachers became the “root cause” of the budget problems. It strikes me that the challenges in our education systems are less about the teachers ability to teach and more about the grinding bureaucracy of an outmoded model of education and an outmoded educational outcomes.

    Where is the evidence that says that corporate bonuses improve individual, senior executive, or business performance? I believe that studies commonly show that extra money in the form of bonuses has little impact on performance. People want to be recognized and appreciated and listened to – and to feel that they are part of an inspiring vision larger than themselves. As long as people are fairly paid and the pay makes it possible to live on the income from ONE job, why are bonuses necessary in any environment?

    And why is the conversation about improving education focused on individual teacher performance?

  57. Sal P. says:

    Well pay incentives don’t really work in the financial world either so why would they in education? Of course the pay scales are different so the marginal impact will be different, but he point is people are not motivated as much by money as other things.

  58. john Davidson says:

    I am not a teacher, but the parent of a teacher and of course a former (still learning) student.

    This is a very complex problem that has been oversimplified by armchair quarterbacks. In a complex society we do not really understand the challenges of different occupations. When I was in elementary grades my parents took an interest in my progress, provided lots of reading material in the home and talked to teachers. I am sure there is a lot of that in American and Canadian homes, but from a distance it seems teachers do have extraordinary challenges, but little respect from others. Gene, in an earlier comment expressed that he would be more motivated if he was shown more respect.

    No one who is the object of abuse can stay strongly motivated forever. The abuse comes from politicians saying what they say to get votes, parents too busy or preoccupied to really understand and support their kids, and a general public attitude that teaching is for those who can’t do anything else.

    I think a teacher can make a difference. Time spent one on one and time spent preparing is important. As a salesman one example that impressed me was of a doctor who asks lots of questions before making a diagnosis and suggesting treatment. Teachers need to ask lots of questions of their students and ideally of the parents and then apply their knowledge and creativity to helping a student learn. We all need to that and we all need to respect the uniqueness of each other’s challenges.

    Most teachers are some level of motivation, but like everyone else can find their level of motivation sapped by abuse.

  59. Sara says:

    This simply verifies what many of us in education already know. Unless designed and moderated very carefully, you cannot use this type of system as a means to improve school quality.
    I am a teacher, actually, one who was asked to be on our school’s Q-Comp committee to research and implement such a program this next school year.
    Most of our teachers are against the proposal, but only because they do not wish to be scrutinized under the regulations.

    Really, as an educator, this is my realization:

    We are teachers, most of us in areas where the amount of jobs are low, and the applicants come in by the hundreds.
    We have reduced funding, added responsibilities, next to nothing in terms of support, and increasing demands.
    Many teachers are overworked. (I can say this as a mother, who is a full time teacher, and is on 7 different committees at my school.) As we reduce the number of staff in our buildings, we increase the amount of responsibilities on each remaining staff member. (Yes, do realize the corporate world has experienced the same, it is simply to be pointed out as an item of interest…in terms of what level the working class is going to be willing to shoulder as far as responsibilities, given the decrease in pay and recognition. It is the same for educators.)
    As my class sizes increase, my pay decreases, my responsibilities increase, and the scrutiny of my students testing is placed under greater intensity each year. Every year, our individual class scores are put in a presentation and shown/compared/analyzed with the rest of the grade level and schools.
    Teachers with lower averages are asked what they need to improve on to raise scores.
    While this is absolutely a question which merits attention- we NEVER look at individual rates. For example, were there 3 kids who had an absentee rate of 34% for the year? Did student A spend 1/2 the year living out of a car? Student B has abuse issues being investigated.
    Certainly even the best teacher can make some gains (or stay level) with these situations, there are times the outside variables change the outcome.

    Simply put: Correlation does not imply causation, especially when there may be an unknown factor contributing to the outcome.
    Teacher A having a poor class overall score does not prove poor teacher quality. (but we all know instances in which it does!)

    With these in mind, I do not doubt for an instant that several of my colleagues will cheat on these tests. Until the system is reformatted in such a way that the teachers don’t feel the pressure, it will continue. It is the same as the CEO’s with their big bonuses. When the heat is applied, different actions are taken.
    I could list a couple colleagues who we strongly suspect of this. It really is sad, because it is our children who suffer in the end.

  60. Rodger S says:

    As a researcher in the field of incentives, I find these studies interesting in that they often fail to provide a true test of “incentives” vs a test of a unique approach to the application of an incentive program. The studies assumed:
    1) that cash is the most effective award for teachers
    2) that the plan is best designed by a committee with little expertise in incentive design (and must fit union requirements of equal payout to all participants)
    3) that the value of the award was valued by the recipients
    4) that the plan was top of mind (promoted) to the participants
    5) that the time period was appropriate for this type of incentive plan.

    Bottom line: most incentive plans that fail to produce results are the result of two issues: poor design and poor implementation. So we tend to toss the tool because the user is not proficient.

  61. There are teachers who enjoy seeing their wards do well. These category require little or no type of motivation to do well or even better.

    To those who it is not a ‘calling’, either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation can only toss them here and there in a little while.However,appreciating performing terachers in whatever way appropriate to any school manager is good.

    Like in our spectacular Nigerian case, I think better incentives in the area of on-the-job retraining should be encouraged highly especially to those who enjoy seeing their wards doing well and are actually working hard to achieve this.

  62. Doug Coleman says:

    Interestingly, some of Dr. Fryer’s earlier work suggests that, with respect to student achievement, it may be better to create an incentive structure for students rather than teachers and make the agency effect more direct. I am including a link to the “Time” article that described this interesting research.,8599,1978589,00.html

  63. Joseph Coladonato says:

    While Prof. Fryer is an economist by training, and much of his work is tested and proved in many cities in the country, the lack of success in NYC proves that these approaches may be transferable but generally not generalziable; due to factors and variables that are out of social scientists’ controls. Nevertheless, a thorough review of organizational theories would have shed some light on the motivation of employees in an organizational system. As an educator, my greatest concern is reducing the education of children to factory widgets, but the “Hawthorne Effect” was a seminal study on motivation in the 1920s and 30s. In the study by Mayo, which resulted in factory employees producing more by the mere presence of “being singled out, being more involved, and made to feel important, rather than by giving more or less break times, more illumination, changing work times, etc.. This study along with theories of Maslow- states that it is more essential to satisfy psychological and social needs rather than offer remuneration as reward. Addtionally, a review of Mcgregor’s Theory X an Y, suggest that some individuals are self-motivated and assumes that others are resistant and apathetic about change or work.

    This is a link that may offer some levity.

  64. Carol says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us. I do agree that teaching is not all about money. We need an encouraging and supporting environment by parents, teachers, policy makers and community to provide pupils with good basics and guidance. These takes good planning by the policy makers, so that teachers can put them in practice ASAP without much time wasted in confusion and solving teething problem as the stds are the ultimate victimes. Teachers should spent more time teaching and guiding the pupils with their heart in the class if we were to see substantial improvement in the pupils. The focus of the teachers are very important.

  65. People who join the teaching profession fall into 3 categories:
    1) Those who are passionate about teaching and nurturing and changing lives. Money is not going to change this group to do better because they are already pouring out their heart and life.
    2) “Those who can’t, teach” group. Money is not going to make any difference here, obviously.
    3) Those who use the teaching profession as a stepping stone or transit to their real destination. Money might have an effect on this group but it would be very slight because their sights are set faraway and once they “smell” their ship coming in…even if it is a mere silhouette on the horizon…they’re gonna pack their bags and run.

  66. Wayne Foster, PhD says:

    It is my opinion that the evidence is still out on this topic. First, if the performance based pay is actually based on incentivizing teachers to participate in school structural changes to support student achievement growth then it may work. It takes a lot to get teachers to actually change an education paradigm in a school; we’ve been doing this public school education ‘thing’ essentially the same way for fifty years! Our incentive pay plan provides the professional development and other forms of support to change the instructional model. The initial data is very promising.

    I know this is provocative but if intrinsic motivation is so natural and normal why does it take so much effort to foster it in so many environments? While individuals who are intrinsically motivated have a hard time understanding those who are not, I am not so sure that most people exhibit much ‘drive’ in any domain of their lives.

    Ask your family, friends or peers what in their lives they do because they are driven. Ask them about the activities they participate in where they work towards constant improvement. Ask about those activities they would participate in even if they were not obligated to or were paid for doing it. I have done this and not one in a three dozen ever identifies anything. Most even admit that their care for their children is based largely on a feeling of obligation.

    I want to believe that we can create an environment where individuals’ intrinsic motivation and passion thrive. I hope we can find a formula for this. I just am not convinced that everyone is as amenable to this type of motivation as those who truly are!

  67. Chicagodad says:

    One thing missing from the discussions on student performance is the question of the accuracy of the tests that seek to measure it. Those who created the value added models cautioned against using them for teacher evaluations since, among other problems, they were not designed to be used that way. Their reservations on the issue have fallen short of the actual problems that have occurred, such as the recent debacle in NYC where the VAM’s produced no useful data at all. How can merit pay be determined with no data to base it on? The insult of it’s failure then becomes an acute disincentive to remain in the profession when it’s continued use is insisted on by those with interests other than what is best for schools.