Teachers really, really hate performance pay

See all posts

Economists don't usually trouble themselves with studying survey results, rising above such mushy things as attitudes and touchy-feely data. Count on Dan Goldhaber to take on such a challenge, teaching us interesting new things about teachers' views of differentiated pay--all while still managing to hold on to his dignity.

With colleagues Michael DeArmond and Scott DeBurgomaster, Goldhaber examines a representative survey completed by over 3,100 Washington state teachers and matches each teacher response with his/her individual characteristics, as well as corresponding student and school performance data. The bottom line: the depth of dislike for performance pay is startling.

The survey looked at four types of differentiated pay: combat, subject area, performance pay and National Board bonuses. Combat pay ranks most favorably with teachers with support at 77 percent. In contrast, there is scant, almost nonexistent support for any pay plan that tries to assess a teacher's performance: 14 percent of the teachers support performance pay 'somewhat' with only 3 percent in 'strong favor.'

Other highlights:

  • Support for merit pay is higher among teachers who have positive impressions of their principal and negative impressions of their colleagues.
  • Generally speaking more veteran and female teachers are less supportive of pay reform while teachers employed in high poverty schools are more likely to support pay reform. So are high school teachers.
  • This just in! Math and science teachers would love to see subject area bonuses! Teachers certified by the National Board would love to see big payouts! Yes, the results were predictable, but they also reveal the inherent self interest behind teacher responses.

    Though you'd never guess it from unions' relentless advocacy for smaller class sizes, the survey answers would seem to indicate that teachers know how little impact occurs from incremental changes in the number of students in their classes. A huge majority (82 percent) of the teachers said they'd rather get a $5,000 pay raise than teach two fewer students. Most would still take that raise (69 percent) over getting another prep period every week. It could be that teachers would rather have the money, or it could also reflect the rampant distrust of teachers for districts following through on any promised improvements. When in doubt, take the cash; it's a safer bet.

    One thing is for sure. Policymakers need to steer clear of any temptation to force teachers to take their differential pay medicine. "It'll be good for you! We promise!" Teachers have good call to be skeptical. Until states align their tests with the actual curriculum that teachers are instructed to teach, teachers are right to balk at the idea that they should be judged on the basis of these tests. Teachers know that these tests, especially in reading, are a crap shoot.

    Nevertheless, treating teachers' views respectfully does not mean that what is needed to advance teacher quality is always what is most fair or best for every teacher. It won't be. And teachers need to be reminded that the current system--though we may have all gotten used to it--is neither fair nor good. Some constructive movement is in order.