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Researchers: School-Level Incentives Unite the 'Tortoise and Hare'

School-level incentives for teachers are potentially more effective than individual incentives, according to a pair of researchers who spoke yesterday at an education-policy symposium in downtown Washington.

Participating in a panel discussion on "Making Teacher Incentives Work" hosted by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Jacob Vigdor of Duke University presented their research on North Carolina's statewide Teacher Bonus Program, which rewards teachers based on their school's performance.

Vigdor first listed three obstacles to individual-level incentive programs: not all teachers teach grades and subjects that require standardized testing; the tests aren't perfect; and teachers will often fight for the best students. The policy alternative, he suggested, is to "evaluate all the teachers in a school on the basis of the performance of that school as a whole," as opposed to rewarding teachers based on their own individual students' test scores.

Ahn went on to describe the inner workings of North Carolina's incentive system, which has been in place since the late 1990s and gives cash bonuses of up to $1,500 to teachers in schools that clear certain thresholds of growth in their students' test scores. According to Ahn and Vigdor, the findings indicate that the bonus program decreased absenteeism among teachers and raised standardized test scores, suggesting that teachers exert more effort when a group incentive is put in place.

Ahn used the example of the "tortoise and hare" effect to demonstrate why school-level bonus programs work better than individual incentives. In an individual race, the hare, or high-quality teacher, will always outrun the tortoise, a less competent yet persevering teacher. Therefore, neither the hare nor the tortoise will try very hard because the outcome is pretty much assumed. But when the hare and tortoise are put on the same team, as with school-level incentives, the dynamic is different. They both run harder for the finish because the outcome is no longer obvious—the hare will work harder knowing that the reward won't be as easy to reach this time, and the tortoise will work harder because the reward is now a realistic goal.

However, Duncan Chaplin of Mathematica Policy Research, who also served on the panel, expressed concern that school-level incentives could result in teachers "free riding," or slacking off, especially in big schools where it's easier to get away with letting other teachers do the hard work. He voiced support for a hybrid system which would combine individual and group awards, arguing that there are benefits to both systems. "If I'm designing a system, I might try to get the best of both worlds," said Chaplin.

Another panelist, the Urban Institute's Jane Hannaway, questioned whether school-based incentive programs would be sustainable in the long term. Teachers feel that "relative status" is important, she said, suggesting that individuals may start to resent their colleagues for receiving the same cash reward even though one is clearly the better teacher. Hannaway also raised concerns about the role of teacher learning. "One of the arguments out there in the teaching profession is that incentives are insufficient, that you also need professional development," said Hannaway.

Vigdor later responded by saying that "Group-level incentives foster a climate where learning on the job happens." The impact of such programs, he said, "comes when they (the teachers) actually learn to do their jobs better."

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