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Understanding Teacher Pay for Performance: Flawed Assumptions and Disappointing Results

by Karen Phelan Kozlowski & Douglas Lee Lauen - 2019

Background: Policy makers are increasingly adopting performance incentives to spur underperforming teachers as a way to improve teaching and student performance. However, much of the experimental research fails to find meaningful effects of performance incentives on either student achievement or teacher practice.

Purpose/Objective: Using the “principal–agent problem” as the theoretical motivation for the study, this research examines why performance incentives have not worked in American schools. The principal–agent problem suggests that in the absence of a perfect system to monitor agents, (e.g., teachers), there must be an incentive based on some measurable outcome to ensure maximal effort. The underlying assumptions about why performance incentives should work for teachers are that (1) teachers are primarily motivated by money, (2) teachers are not currently working hard enough, and (3) teachers know how to be more effective but are choosing not to put forth the necessary effort to do so. The purpose of this research is to examine whether these assumptions hold for teachers.

Research Design: We conducted qualitative analysis of interviews and focus groups with approximately 150 teachers and 20 administrators from 13 of the lowest performing school districts in North Carolina to understand how educators perceived performance incentives in the context of their own practice.

Findings: Three key themes emerged from our study. First, teachers report being motivated by service to their students instead of opportunities to maximize income. Second, teachers think they are already working as hard as they can and find little room in their practice to work harder, whatever the financial reward. Third, when teachers do improve their practice, it comes from opportunities to learn new strategies and techniques.

Conclusions: The empirical research presented in this paper suggests that performance incentive programs rest on a set of flawed theoretical assumptions. Performance incentives assume that teachers (1) are primarily motivated by financial rewards, (2) are not working as hard as they can, and (3) know how to be more effective. However, these assumptions do not comport with what teachers and administrators report about their motivation and practice. Therefore, performance incentives will likely do little to improve teacher effectiveness overall.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 2, 2019, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22587, Date Accessed: 9/18/2021 9:38:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen Kozlowski
    University of Southern Mississippi
    E-mail Author
    KAREN PHELAN KOZLOWSKI is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her research examines racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality in educational achievement and classroom experience. She is the recent author of “Culture or Teacher Bias? Racial and Ethnic Variation in Student-Teacher Effort Assessment Mis/Match” (Race and Social Problems) and “Seeing Race: Teaching Residential Segregation with the Racial Dot Map” (with Charles Seguin and Annette Nierobisz in Teaching Sociology).
  • Douglas Lauen
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    DOUGLAS LEE LAUEN is an associate professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work examines the effectiveness of school types and interventions on students and how these effects vary for traditionally underserved populations. Forthcoming papers include, “Early Colleges at Scale: Impacts on Secondary and Postsecondary Outcomes” in the American Journal of Education and “Methods for Examining the Effects of School Poverty on Student Test Score Achievement” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Education in the 21st Century.
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