Teacher incentives demotivate Houston teachers

Advocates of using pay to improve teacher performance grow excited over the addition of federal money to supplement local district pay incentives. But maybe they shouldn’t.

Contrary to other provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), there is little research to demonstrate that paying a few teachers more will improve student performance. Cheapskates looking for quick solutions advocate pay incentives, though, and some districts have plunged headlong.

Houston is reaping the whirlwind at the moment. Incentive pay went out earlier this week, and disparities showed up immediately.

The Houston Chronicle’s columnist Rick Casey very briefly explains in today’s edition:

It would be appropriate, in a way, for Houston teachers who are upset that they didn’t get bonuses to protest by calling in sick.

Or by stamping their feet and crying.

Or by holding their breath until they turn blue.

It would be appropriate, in a way, because it would be an immature response to an immature accountability system.

I’m not being snide about HISD’s bonus formula, despite some of the anomalies that have been identified, including no bonus for a teacher whose entire class passed the TAKS test nor for a teacher who had been recognized as bilingual teacher of the year.

There are several articles available on the payout, the way the plan is structured, and the problems. I understand the Houston Chronicle also has a web site featuring details of the payouts, including teachers by name, and amounts paid.

This is a great de-motivator. Who thought this through? No one.

Other sources:


6 Responses to Teacher incentives demotivate Houston teachers

  1. […] District goofs, asks teachers to return “incentive” pay That the program was not well thought out, untimely, and poorly understood, almost guaranteed that the Houston Independent School District’s ballyhooed incentive pay plan would get jeers. […]


  2. Tom says:

    In statistical analysis presented to the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), a reputable mathematician demonstrated that only the top and bottom 10% of teachers (as based on student growth) can be identified in a statistically significant way. I got a report of the presentation second-hand; I wish I had links to the research.

    Interestingly, the study showed that the bottom 10% would remove themselves from teaching after a few years, just by being showed their relative performance–because they cared so much about their students. The first year they considered it an anomaly. The second year they worked hard to fix it. If they could effect little change after three years, they would leave teaching without much prodding. Data all by itself can be powerful.

    With this in mind, bonuses based on student growth must necessarily be a _small_ part of any comprehensive performance package. It can’t be so high that competition replaces cooperation. Also, such bonuses need not reside solely at the classroom level, but can be appropriately applied as part of a package that also recognizes quality “learning communities”, grade/subject groups, schools, and even districts. It is also essential that any performance-based scheme not be unfairly biased toward teachers at upper-income schools (those most likely to have all students pass a standards test). Houston’s plan may have problems, but Denver’s is showing promise.

    Performance incentives are in the near future, whether the union likes it or not. I assert teachers can’t avoid it simply on principle (as many do with vouchers), but need to be at the table to shape the discussion in responsible ways.

    And in response to your first commenter, may I suggest the following article:


  3. Hans says:

    What organization other than the bureaucratic education management could give away 12 million dollars and infuriate over half of the participants? The short answer is none. The longer answer is only another euducrat organization. From what I understand of the current system, it would be more fair to let each teacher spin the wheel of fortune and pay out based on that. The payout today is based mostly on the luck of the draw and the school to which one is assigned. The best chance for payout is to go to the worse school, and compete against the past incompetence.


  4. mpb says:

    A significant start to the long slide down of excellence at national labs was the switch in the late 70s towards a business model of management. (see MANAGING THE UNMANAGEABLE., Authors:Crease, Robert P., Samios, Nicholas P. Source:Atlantic Monthly; Jan91, Vol. 267 Issue 1, p80, 8p)

    At Los Alamos National Lab the push was “pay for creativity”.

    In 1985, the Laboratory director, in a colloquium on creativity in science, Management’s Challenge: Nurturing Creativity At Work, responded unfavorably to the suggestion that freedom of choice in research or even when to do research tasks, such as that enjoyed by postdoctoral fellows and Laboratory Fellows, might be extended for a short period to a larger segment of the staff as a reward for creativity, in addition to the traditional salary and certificates. The Director would not consider this for fear that at a mission-oriented Laboratory, members might wish to do “irrelevant studies such as poetry” [this where “beauty” “charm” and “elegance” are aspects of physics].

    “Science is a human activity” [The director didn’t appreciate the inherent oxymoron of managed creativity. He later went on to head the FBI’s lab.]

    This “incentivizing” was contradicted by actual research at LANL, a significant PhD thesis by Mary Meyer (pay was not at the top of rewards cited by lab workers) and my own findings during a postdoc.

    Very sad (and dangerous) that a science institution rejects scientific research, and that a teaching institution won’t first learn.


  5. The whole incentives thing was trashed a number of years ago by Alfie Kohn, in Punished by Rewards.


    My colleagues and I noticed an odd thing many years ago when management was devoting much attention to precise incentive schemes to motivate us to progam computers better and better: Managers are only in it for the huge paychecks. Can you believe it? They work at that stuff without enjoyment or a sense that they’re doing something valuable! Pay them less and they’ll go do something else. (Hey, now there’s an idea.) No wonder the level of competence is so low in that line of work.

    No no, I’m aware that there are many managers of high competence who do respect their own profession and can understand why it is that other people work. I’m not talking about them, but about the ones who assume that other people won’t put out any effort without a scaled system of bribes for it.


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