Incentives – Rewarding Good Teachers

In this post, I want to talk about this statement : it is good to reward good teachers.

Some might say that teachers teach as a passion, and a reward is demeaning. While it’s true that there exist good teachers who are so devoted to their craft that they would work for free, it is still good to reward good teachers.

After all,

  • While the occasional good teacher may be willing to work for free, they still have bills to pay. If a good teacher is rewarded, it makes them more likely to remain a teacher.
  • Then again, there may be plenty of potentially good teachers who are not so devoted, and are considering a career in some other area. If they see that good teachers are rewarded, they are more likely to become good teachers, rather than (say) better paid, but less good lawyers.
  • There are also some mediocre teachers who, if they saw that good teachers were rewarded, might but in the extra effort and self-study needed to unlock their potential.
  • Besides all these pragmatic reasons (rewarding good teachers produces more good teachers), I just don’t buy the idea that a good teacher, teaching out of their devotion to their craft, doesn’t deserve to be rewarded for being a good teacher. “Virtue is it’s own reward” may be often true, but that doesn’t mean it should be.

Some might say, instead, “But how on earth are you going to identify good teachers?” This is both a very good point, and completely irrelevant.

Yes, it’s hard to identify good teachers. Any attempt to reward good teachers will probably start by identifying them. Therefore it is hard to reward good teachers. This is a very good point, and worth mentioning. On the other hand, it’s irrelevant to the statement “it is good to reward good teachers.” Whether something is hard doesn’t affect whether it is good. It may affect whether it is worth the effort, but that depends on how hard and how good it is.

Good teaching helps prepare a child for their future as an adult. If we want to detect a good teacher, the most reliable way would be to see what happens to their students when they enter adult life. A naïve method of rewarding good teachers would be to tax every working adult 0.1% of their salary, and share this amongst their former teachers. Since a teacher might influence a thousand or more pupils in his or her career, this adds up to a nice retirement income. Of course this naïve idea would not work well.

  • Does anyone seriously think that salary is a good proxy for adult “success”?
  • As stated, this system doesn’t take into account the effect of a child’s socioeconomic background on their future income. Therefore the scheme would reward bad teachers in affluent areas better than good teachers in poor areas.
  • Probably worse, it rewards large class sizes over small ones.
  • High school teachers would hit paydirt faster than primary school teachers.

The last point illustrates the real main problem with rewarding teachers based on what happens to their precious angels when they enter the big bad adult world. It takes too long. By the time a kindy teacher retires, his or her very first students have only just passed middle-age. It’s a bit too late to go back to the kindy then and say “keep up the good work”.

The next best solution is to try to judge teachers based on things that appear more quickly, and are good predictors of future success. Or better still, suppose we try to judge teachers on things that studies prove are good indicators of good teaching. This can also lead to problems.

Suppose good teaching results in, say, X. If you want a more concrete example, let X be something you think good teaching results in, be it “improved test results”, or “increased confidence”, or “increased creativity”. Suppose we then say “Let’s reward teachers whose students develop X”. Unfortunately, there may be other ways to get X besides good teaching. For example, you can improve test results by “teaching to the test”. Before the incentive, teachers didn’t find these worth pursuing. Now that we are rewarding X, however, things are different. A formerly good indicator of good teaching can become a lousy one when we start to reward teachers (whether good or not) who measure up to it.

I’ll illustrate this idea further in a future article.