Why teacher incentives work

Posted on July 12, 2011


From Dave Orphal:
“When I got into teaching 15 years ago, it was for the money. The fame was nice too, but mostly it was for the money.

Back then, when I was making a six-figure salary ($ 038,000) I knew that I needed to hold a little something back. Sure, I was making great benefits. I could go to the dentists, I had a gym and a cafeteria on my work site (nods to John Stewart)…. But working 180 days a year is a lot to ask a person… I mean it’s nearly 1/2 the year! It’s like having to work 3 days a week, every week, with no weekends! So I held a little back…

You see, I knew, way back then I knew, that someday my political and punditry overlords were going to wake up to the fact that I’ve got to be bribed to do my best. They must have asked my Mom how to motivate me to do something I don’t want to do. “We used to pay him a dollar to eat all of his vegetables,” she replied. Aww, Mom… you know me so well!

So like I’ve said, I’ve been holding back. I’ve been working about 75% of my awesome-capacity. I mean seriously, 75% of awesome is still a “C” Right?
You might think that I’m ready to go all-in, now that Bill, Michelle and Arnie have put some more benjamins on the table. Man, are they wrong. I’m telling you, if they are going to put some more money in my pocket, then I’ll give them a little taste. Say bump it up to 78%, you know, like a C+. They are going to be fist-bumping and high-fiving each other silly over their “success.”

But I’m telling you, in a few months, that high is going to wear off, and who do you think they are going to come see? How many benjamins do you think they are going be slapping down? They’re going to be all over me going, like, “Please, Mr. Teacher, sir. Give us a little more! We’re jonezing for just a little more. Please! Take all our money, just give us a little more.”

That me, brother. Straight up gangster teaching. Suckers better have my money!”

This hilarious, sarcastic commentary on teacher incentive pay points out the very reason why research has shown that incentive pay efforts have no direct impact on student achievement–almost all teachers are already committed to doing their best to make sure their kids learn as much as possible. Sure, some teachers are not doing their best, but the pay is not the reason and incentive pay will not fix the problem with those teachers.

And sure, some teachers are not as good as they should be, but most of the time it is not for lack of effort. when asked what they do when they identify an under-performing teacher, Finland education leaders responded with, “We give them help and support.” And after that? “We give them more help and support.”

What teachers want is a decent wage, respect, a principal that provides great leadership, and a supportive central office and community. The great leadership includes treating teachers with respect, providing them with appropriate materials and supplies, supporting them in their development as professionals, and creating an atmosphere of trust and respect. In fact, research by Barnett Berry and myself as well as by Helen Ladd of Duke find that teacher working conditions–especially quality leadership–explain teacher retention to a greater degree than pay, student achievement, and student demographics.

It sure would behoove those trying to ram ed reform down the throats of educators and the public to take a minute and, you know, talk and LISTEN to actual TEACHERS.

The above quote was written by Dave Orphal in response to wonderful column written by Bill Ferriter. Mr. Orphal has a blog at http://learning2030-orphal.blogspot.com/ and Mr. Ferriter has a blog as part of the Teacher Leader’s Network at:


The Teacher Leaders Network was started by my friend, colleague, and former employer, Barnett Berry who is the President of the Center for Teaching Quality ( www.teachingquality.org ).

Ladd, H. (2011). Teacher perceptions of their working conditions: How predictive of policy relevant outcomes? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(2). A previous version of the paper can be found at: http://www.urban.org/uploadedpdf/1001440-Teachers-Perceptions.pdf  This

Berry, B., Smylie, M. & Fuller, E.J. (2008, October). Understanding Teacher Working Conditions: A Review and Look to the Future. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality

Berry, B. & Fuller, E. (2008, January). Cultivate Learning Environments to Accelerate Recruitment and Retention: A Report on Mississippi Teacher Working Conditions. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Berry, B. & Fuller, E. (2007, November). Final Report on the 2007 Clark County School District Teaching and Learning Conditions Survey. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Berry, B. & Fuller, E. (2007, October). Stemming the Tide of Teacher Attrition: Teacher Working Conditions in Arizona. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality.

Berry, B. & Fuller, E. (2007, September). Teaching and Learning Conditions in Ohio Implications for Supply and Demand. Hillsborough, NC: Center for Teaching Quality

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