Published on Let's Talk Development

Teacher Opinions and the What, Who and How of Teacher Incentive Programs

This page in:

In recent years, much has been written about the benefits of teacher incentive schemes for improving education in both developed and developing countries, but little is known about teachers’ opinions of incentives. Teachers’ opinions could vary as widely as the types of incentive schemes, since the schemes themselves can be as different as apples and oranges: differing in terms of what behavior is rewarded, whether an individual teacher or group of teachers is rewarded, and whether or not the incentive involves competition. Theoretically, teacher incentives motivate teacher behaviors that improve student learning and reward teachers who demonstrate desired behaviors or whose students show improved learning. But the empirical literature – especially from developing countries—is far from conclusive regarding these effects. Moreover, some research suggests that extrinsic rewards, such as salary bonuses, actually reduce motivation rather than stimulate it.

In terms of what is rewarded, at least five types of behaviors have been studied. Incentives can be tied to demonstrated teacher behaviors that are easy to monitor and simple to reward: “hardship pay” to recruit teachers to work in difficult conditions, “scarce expertise pay” to recruit teachers who can teach selected subjects (such as science an math), or “attendance pay” to reward teachers for simply showing up at school and teaching. Incentives can also be tied to more complex behaviors that are more difficult to monitor and hence more complicated to reward: “certification pay” for demonstrated mastery of teaching knowledge or skills and “merit pay” for demonstrated increases in the test scores of a teacher’s students. Three of these incentive program types -- attendance pay, certification pay and merit pay -- can be considered “standards-based” incentive schemes, since they typically establish different “performance standards” or levels that teachers need to meet, with reward amounts contingent on the level achieved.

Incentive programs can also be targeted at individual teachers (teacher incentive programs) or an entire school (“whole school” incentive programs); they may or may not be competitive. Competitive incentive programs reward only the “best” teachers or schools, whereas non-competitive programs reward all teachers or schools that meet pre-established standards or criteria.

Most research on standards-based incentives has been conducted in OECD countries and finds that--in general-- individual, standards-based teacher incentives appear to be more effective than competitive teacher incentives. However, in developing countries and for reasons of budget constraints, competitive teacher incentive programs are often preferred, since pay bonuses can be given to a limited number of teachers, up to a previously determined amount available.

Studies of teacher opinions regarding incentive programs are rare, but fail to find support for competitive programs, particularly competitive “merit pay” schemes.  In developing countries, research finds that teachers hold less favorable attitudes towards competitive incentive schemes as compared with standards-based incentive schemes. In developed countries, teachers are supportive of “certification pay” schemes where teachers are rewarded for content mastery and pedagogical skills, but not of “merit pay” schemes. In addition, research from developed countries finds that extrinsic rewards, such as money or other tangible goods, reduce intrinsic motivation, whereas positive feedback for observed competence increases intrinsic motivation.

My recent study, "Teacher opinions on performance incentives," looks at the perceptions of teachers who met different standards of performance and thereby received different pay bonus amounts in a within-school standards-based “certification” incentive program. The Kyrgyz Republic teacher incentive program was intended to test one way of both raising teachers’ remuneration and improving their performance, by providing monthly salary bonuses to teachers depending on their level of performance as assessed (on a 5-point scale) through portfolio reviews, observations and interviews; these bonuses amounted to salary increments ranging from 19% to 40% of the recipients’ base salary. Although the program was intended as a standards-based teacher incentive scheme, resource limitations introduced competition, since within-school decisions were made to adjust the bonus payments to each school’s actual resource envelope.

For this study, I conducted a retrospective evaluation of the Kyrgyz Republic’s teacher incentive program to examine teacher awardees’ perceptions of the program’s motivational aspects and their self-reports of the impact of the program on their own teaching behaviors.  I also ask whether differences in teachers’ standards-based performance ratings are associated with differences in these opinions and self-reports. Information regarding the performance level of all teachers participating in the incentive program in 2007-08 was used to construct a sampling frame for each school in the program; within each of the 157 participating schools, one teacher was randomly sampled from each of five performance levels receiving awards and in 2011 was contacted and individually interviewed by local researchers.

Overall, teachers recalled that the teacher incentive program was motivating and provided useful skills and knowledge. A few differences in perceptions regarding the program were found among teacher awardees, by level of award. In particular, teachers who received lower performance ratings held less favorable opinions about the motivational aspects of the incentive program in comparison with those who received higher ratings. Despite this, lower-rated teachers were more likely than more highly rated teachers to report using what they learned to evaluate their own teaching and to take professional development courses in the years following the program’s implementation. And some teachers reported receiving less than they had anticipated, in line with the resource constraints of the school.

This study has three implications for designing future teacher incentive schemes. First, standards-based teacher incentive programs are likely to be well received by teachers. Second, teacher incentive programs should avoid a “two-pronged” approach that establishes qualification standards but then awards bonuses competitively, since this may affect both teacher satisfaction and the program’s impact on student performance. Third, teacher incentive programs that award merit pay should establish bonus levels that are affordable, even if all teachers attain the performance standard.

Further readings:
Murnane , R. J., (2008) “Educating Urban Children” NBER Working Paper 13791. National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass.
Goldhaber, D., M. DeArmond and S. DeBurgomaster (2010). “Teacher Attitudes about Compensation Reform: Implications for reform implementation” CALDER Working Paper 50. Urban Institute, National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, Washington, DC.
Goldhaber, De Armond & DeBurgomaster 2010
Martins, P. (2010) “Individual Teacher Incentives, Student Achievement and Grade Inflation” London School of Economics, Centre for the Economics of Education.
Muralidharan, K. and V. Sundararaman (2011). Teacher Opinions on Performance Pay: Evidence from India. Economics of Education Review 30 (1): 394-403.
Gastanadui, L. (2013). “Teacher evaluation and resistance to change: A mixed-method study of the Peruvian new teacher career law.” Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.


Marlaine E. Lockheed

Visiting Lecturer, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000