On occasion, I see or hear pay-for-performance in teaching discussed as a solution to help fix education. I believe studies show that these pay systems show modest gains, but nothing to write home about.
I think the discussion usually misses the point, though.
First, I don’t trust standard measures of teacher performance. Holding teachers accountable to test scores doesn’t make much sense. Students should be held accountable to test scores. Teachers should be held accountable to whether parents would recommend that teacher to kids of other parents.
Second, if pay-for-performance is not accompanied by a more open market for teachers, it won’t do much good.
In a pay-for-performance model, I believe there are two sources of possible advantage.
1) The “right” pay incentives may cause individuals to try harder and perform better than they would without those incentives.
2) The overall pay level attracts people with the best talent for doing the job.
I believe #1 is the benefit most people consider when discussing pay-for-performance. However, #2 is the primary source of advantage and it won’t work if it doesn’t attract those with better talent.
Consider professional sports. Many players receive bonuses if they achieve certain defined goals, like accumulating a certain number of touchdowns or making it to the post season. I don’t believe those bonuses have much influence on outcomes. Maybe some, but not a lot. I have yet to hear teams claim they have found the magic formula pay structure that turns a mediocre football talent into a superstar.
Who performs the task does influence outcomes. Put me in as a running back in the NFL and I would lose yardage and get a career-ending injury the first time I was tackled, no matter what bonuses were built into my contract.
The pay levels of the NFL encourages folks with much greater football talent than I into giving it a go. Let’s say NFL salaries were capped to $100,000 per season. Do you think the NFL would attract the same talent that it does today? Doubtful. Many of these guys would find something else to do.
In teaching, we typically look to see if pay-for-performance will encourage the existing teachers to perform better. We should be looking to see if it attracts teachers with a different level of talent.