Listening to teachers

Those who would change the teaching profession by instituting pay incentives tied to performance can learn some things about teacher attitudes toward the issue from the latest Public Agenda study, Stand By Me. Here, I'd like to focus on what teachers told us was a glaring flaw in the public schools and what they would support to solve it.

Today, the most experienced teachers tend to teach the best students in the best schools. In focus groups, teachers told us that new teachers are more likely to draw the short straw: at the building-level, they're assigned to teach the toughest kids; at the district-level, they're sent to work in the toughest neighborhoods. This seems paradoxical and, according to teachers themselves, plain wrong. In our survey, only 20 percent say this is reasonable because veterans have earned it while fully 61 percent say it's wrong because it leaves inexperienced teachers with the hardest-to-reach students. Not surprisingly, newer teachers are most likely to feel this is wrong (69 percent) but the majority of veterans (55 percent) agrees.

It's likely that many rookies who would otherwise be on track to becoming good teachers are overwhelmed by their first experiences and drop out. Those who stay in the profession may seek better positions at the first opportunity, leaving the most challenging kids for the next poor draftee to struggle with. The principal of one low performing school described to us his frustrations. Because of his school's reputation, he's often reduced to filling vacancies with new teachers he judges to be promising. He invests in their mentoring and professional development. But just as his bets seem about to pay off, he frequently loses these teachers to districts or schools that can offer better work environments and less stress. For him, this is a frustrating treadmill. For education leaders, it's a public policy dilemma.

Would teachers support an incentive system designed to tempt the most talented professionals to tackle the biggest challenges and then reward them for doing so? According to our survey, most would. Of the seven different kinds of incentive and merit pay proposals we asked about, a majority of teachers supported five. The proposal that garners the most support - with 70 percent of all teachers backing it - would provide financial incentives to "teachers who work in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools." A majority of teachers (63 percent) also supports higher pay for teachers who "teach difficult classes with hard-to-reach students."

Previous studies have demonstrated teacher support for "combat pay." But the underlying reasons for this steadfast support are crucial to keep in mind. Teachers can recognize the best within their ranks and would be glad to see superior instructors rewarded for working with the kids who need them the most. According to our findings, teachers know that some of their colleagues work harder and put in more effort. Most say it's easy to spot the truly great teachers in their building, that there would be no argument about who they are, and that there would be little resentment if those teachers were paid more for taking on the harder assignments. Moreover, it's logical that, with an incentive system to entice first-rate teachers into hard-to-staff classes and schools, the kids with the greatest learning needs will have a better chance of landing in the hands of someone who can help them succeed.

As reformers seek to reshape a profession whose current structure is dictated by so many complicated forces, they face a set of policy tangles. No incentive plan for teachers can be successfully implemented until other modifications are also in place, such as giving school leaders more freedom to make staffing decisions.

Challenging indeed. But that's not the whole story. Reformers need to understand what makes teachers tick, because extra money will only be a small part of the broad array of incentives that would entice them into the tougher assignments. A previous Public Agenda study showed that, given a choice, most new teachers would forego more money in favor of a good principal, the chance to work with other highly motivated teachers, or an orderly, focused school atmosphere. Several years ago, I moderated a focus group of parochial-school teachers in Westchester County, New York. Though all grumbled about low pay - some were even waiting for higher paying jobs in local public schools - none was willing to go to higher paying jobs in New York City, where they perceived a difficult school atmosphere.

Certainly, many people do respond to higher salaries, but professionals also respond to other things, including the desire to be productive, simple praise, threat of punishment, etc. So by all means pay good teachers a bonus but, even more importantly, bring them into challenging schools as part of a hand-picked team, with a good leader, a shared philosophy, and a sense of purpose. Financial recognition may turn out to be just the icing on the cake that will lure the best teachers into the classrooms where they're needed most.

Stand by Me: What Teachers Really Think About Unions, Merit Pay and Other Professional Matters, Public Agenda, June 2003

Steve Farkas is research director of Public Agenda.

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