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Executive Pay and Teacher Bonuses: Where's my Motivation?


I have to admit I have been a bit puzzled by the way our world seems to work, especially the latest news from Wall Street. Executives there apparently require bonuses that are several times their annual salaries – already in the millions of dollars – in order to motivate them to perform the duties for which they were hired.


It has made me wonder about the reason policy makers seem so fixated on attaching bonuses to teacher pay for the things they value, like student test scores. Frequently we hear teachers being accused of “opposing accountability,” because we are reluctant to have our pay linked to our results measured this way.

In my experience, most of the people who choose to teach in schools with the greatest need feel a high degree of social responsibility. For that reason it seems particularly unjust that the social indictment for poor test scores falls on them the hardest, because their students often lag behind their peers in schools of wealth and privilege.

Part of the problem is that our commitment to social justice is hard to quantify, and perhaps hard for people in business to even fathom. So I awoke this morning determined to record the ways in which I have felt accountable as a middle school teacher of math and science for 18 years in a high needs school.

I enter class each morning accountable to my students, knowing this is their chance to learn, especially those who have not learned so much in the past six years of school. I chose middle school because the students seem on the cusp, ready to go either way, and if I can catch them and help them choose learning, then I have made a big difference.

I know that if this sixth grader has not mastered his times tables and does not understand fractions, I can give him a chance in the next nine months to get over his fear of math so he can succeed in Algebra in a few years. If we fail, I know he is unlikely to make it to in college. My reward is hearing him say "This isn't so hard," as he finishes a quiz. My reward is hearing from him a year later that 7th grade math is easy, because we learned so much last year.

I know the ancestors of many of my students arrived to these shores in shackles, and the legacy of slavery and racism has cast a long shadow. Education is the best chance my students have to escape poverty, but many of them, at age 11, already feel like failures. I feel it is my responsibility to find ways to reach them, of allowing them to develop their skills and imaginations in ways they may not have done before. My reward is when I see them engaged in learning, when I see them working to produce a second draft better than their first, standing up and sharing what they learned to their peers, taking on the role of a learner.


I know the only science these students may have had was reading about somebody else’s experiments. If there is a future scientist in the room, that child will need his curiosity awakened and rewarded by the knowledge that his questions can be answered by investigation. That means I am accountable for creating an atmosphere of excitement and intrigue around science, because that is the most powerful motivator for learning. The reward for this is the excited buzz I hear among them when they are conducting their experiments, and the scientific presentations I see them give to their peers when their investigations and research is complete.

I know that I need the help and support of the parents of my students if we are going to succeed. That means I feel accountable for communicating with them through the year. There are phone calls in the fall to introduce myself and make them aware of my grading system and expectations, and the ways they can monitor their child’s work, and follow-ups when their child needs some guidance. My reward is that when I phone in the spring because their child has failed to do homework for a week or two, and is goofing off in class, I have a responsible parent helping that student complete his work, and have averted a possible failure.

I know many of my fellow science and math teachers are in their first year or two of teaching, and they are struggling. If they are to succeed, I will need to help develop a collaborative community so we can share curriculum ideas and management strategies. My rewards are the fresh ideas I get from my newer colleagues, more sharp minds to help me problem-solve my own dilemmas, and a team of teachers to create some school-wide initiatives to help our students. My biggest reward is seeing those teachers choose to stay in this tough profession, better yet stay at this school, rather than move on to an easier assignment elsewhere.

Pay for performance is the latest thing that is supposed to cure what ails public schools. If only teachers would allow ourselves to be held accountable for our results, then we would see us motivated to improve student learning. But for me, and I suspect many other teachers, our problem has never been lack of motivation. I strongly believe teachers should be paid more for the work we do, and teachers who do more should be paid more. So I support differentiated pay to reward greater effort and greater levels of expertise. But if policymakers believe the extra motivation from a year-end bonus is going to lift our students’ test scores, I think they are going to be disappointed. Unlike the Wall Street executives, the primary rewards we are seeking are not monetary ones, and test scores are only a small part of the way we measure our success.

What motivates YOU as a teacher? What do you think about performance pay for teachers?


This is a beautifully written, poignant piece with which I totally identify.

The most powerful motivator of good teachers has always been our love for our students and our concern for their futures.

As you may already know, my take on performance pay for teachers is not that it will "motivate" teachers to do a better job. Rather, I think the entire structure of how teachers get paid should be redesigned to focus on what good teachers do (or should do). We should get paid for how well we teach, how we contribute to the profession, how we help each other become better teachers, not on how many years we simply show up for work.

As for the executive bonuses, they're just one more sign of the perverted priorities we've had in our economy, and the hypocrisy behind our society's claims that our children are our future.

Thank you for writing this. This idea of corporatization of education is ridiculous. That model doesn't even work for corporations so why should it work for children.

I work for a noble non-profit called "Fund for Teachers," which exists to reward and retain top teachers like yourself who are motivated by your same guiding principals. Because teachers often have so few resources and can quickly grow unmotivated due to your above mentioned challenges, Fund for Teachers awards grants that empower teachers to pursue whatever it is that will keep them inspired and in the classroom.

Many of our 3,500 Fellows over the past eight years teach in Oakland. Please share this opportunity for our most dedicated and accountable teachers to pursue their interests and remember why they entered the teaching profession in the first place.


Mr. Cody speaks for most teachers when he writes that we're motivated as much by the successes -- academic, social, intellectual -- of our students as by financial gains. But we are, after all, as much infulenced by our economy as any other workers, and that's why we're interested in as many ways to advance in our profession as possible beyond the seniority systems that are in place in so many school systems. Merit pay is a premise whose time has come.

As a forty-year educator with experience in the public, private, and for-profit sectors, I've written about it in the December 30, 2008 posting of my Dr. Rick Blog (www.drrickblog.com) and continue to hear from teachers who have creative, fair, and workable ideas to implement locally.

Dear Rick,
Even though the point of my blog post was to describe my primary motivations, I agree with you that we should be open to finding different ways to compensate teachers for all that we do. In particular, I think compensation could be used to strengthen teacher leadership and collaboration, by rewarding those aspects of the profession that have historically been ignored. Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed your blog as well.


I agree with almost everything you say and hope that I (also a teacher) am living up to the high standards you set for yourself and our profession. But if I could play devil's advocate for a minute, let me propose that you are the one doing the holding in the phrase "held accountable."

Corporate types use that phrase based on an (ignorant) assumption that all teachers need an outside force to do that holding, but this is an oversimplifcation based on their (accurate) awareness that some teachers -- like some people in every profession -- need extrinsic motivation because their intrinsic motivation is, shall we say, less effective than yours. Therefore, I wonder if the question "How can we hold teachers accountable?" can be redacted to "How can we hold subpar teachers accountable while not disrupting effective teachers, all the while rewarding all teachers fairly for what they do well?"

A much more complicated question -- and we know our society loves simple questions.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. I'll check out Dr. Rick also! I enjoy reading your commentary.

I think you make a good point. The question "How do we hold teachers (or schools) accountable" has been set before us in the public discourse by critics of the profession who believe that we have NOT been held accountable up until now.

This is a very complicated proposition once you start unpacking it, and we could debate for a long time how it is possible to hold educators responsible for inequitable outcomes, when there are so many factors besides teachers that contribute to those outcomes. But if we can leave that question aside for a moment, perhaps we can look at the ways our schools function that could be strengthened, and propose changes that actually make things genuinely better.

What are the things that undermine genuine accountability?
* the culture where teachers close their doors and teach in isolation
* fear of letting others see us teach, fear of sharing our work, fear of criticism.
* A culture that blames teachers for every outcome, and contributes to these fears.
* A system that measures only a few of the outcomes we actually value, making us accountable only for test scores, when as teachers there are so many more things we strive for.

So I agree with your point, that we should focus the sharp end of accountability on the small minority of teachers who are doing poorly. But I think we need to look at broader cultural shifts to bring those poor practices to light.

The bottom line is that we ARE all accountable, and we need to improve our practices so there are better ways of making that accountability visible, to show off the best practices, and encourage those with poor practices to learn or leave.

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