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Tapping Into What Makes Teachers Tick

Research shows that incentive programs that merely pay teachers for student test scores produce limited results; other incentives are more popular with teachers, produce better outcomes and can be used to spread expertise to colleagues.

Jamie Horwitz, (202) 549-4921,
Barnett Berry, (919) 913-3000,

Boulder, CO (January 12, 2012) — Do teachers think like salesmen or assembly line workers? Does a financial reward tied to a production goal or sales target motivate teachers to teach better, and do students benefit from these financial incentives? The answer is that few or no gains come from such teacher incentives. This is because pay-for-performance schemes don’t respond to what teachers care most about, but other incentives might be much more successful, according to Creating Teacher Incentives for School Excellence and Equity, issued today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The policy brief provides state governments, schools, and school districts with fundamental information about what research tells us concerning the kinds of incentives that are likely to get the best teachers to work in and stay in schools — particularly high-needs schools.

The policy brief is written for the NEPC by Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality, and Jonathan Eckert, an education professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and former Teaching Ambassador at the U.S. Department of Education, where he worked in both the Bush and Obama administrations on teacher quality issues. A companion document takes the policy brief’s recommendations and offers legislative language that would translate those recommendations into law. This legislative brief is written by professor Scott R. Bauries of the University of Kentucky College of Law, whose areas of expertise include education law and employment law.

In their review of the empirical evidence, Berry and Eckert note that “teacher incentive proposals are rarely grounded on what high-quality research indicates are the kinds of teacher incentives that lead to school excellence and equity.”

For example, the authors note that “empirical evidence, including large-scale studies and an increasing number of teacher testimonies, suggest that working conditions are far more important than bonuses.” Moreover, those important working conditions go well beyond the issues of time, class size, and the length of the workday. Policymakers need to focus on the conditions that allow teachers to teach effectively, including: “(1) principals who cultivate and embrace teacher leadership; (2) time and tools for teachers to learn from each other; (3) specialized preparation and resources for the highest needs schools, subjects, and students; (4) the elimination of out-of-field teaching assignments; (5) teaching loads that are differentiated based on the diversity and mobility of students taught; (6) opportunities to take risks; (7) integration of academic, social, and health support services for students; and (8) safe and well-maintained school buildings.”

In addition, missing from virtually all of the currently in-vogue strategies to give teachers incentives to improve achievement is an understanding of how incentives could be used to reward teachers who spread their expertise to their colleagues. Teachers have long been organizationally “siloed” from each other. Berry and Eckert point out that strategic compensation could be used to reward teachers who collaborate, not compete, with their colleagues in helping them teach for more effectively.

The authors offer other specific recommendations as well, concluding, “What most teachers desire is the know-how to teach their subjects as well as the autonomy and supports to best meet the needs of their students.” Effectively addressing the conditions that the best teachers want and need will go a long way toward supporting their professional activities and retaining them — particularly in high-needs schools.

Find the brief, Creating Teacher Incentives for School Excellence and Equity, by Barnett Berry and Jonathan Eckert, as well as Scott Bauries’s legislative brief, on the web at:

The two briefs were produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice ( In addition, the Ford Foundation provided funding for the policy brief, Creating Teacher Incentives for School Excellence and Equity.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit For more information of the Ford Foundation-funded project, called the Initiative on Diversity, Equity, and Learning (IDEAL), please visit