A Leap of Faith: Redesigning Teacher Compensation

June 2008

There is a growing chorus in education policy for rewarding teachers for things such as raising student achievement, taking on difficult teaching assignments, and having special skills (e.g., a mathematics degree). Advocates of these reforms hope that financial incentives will motivate teachers to focus on performance and draw more talented teachers into the classrooms where they are most needed.

These ideas are not new, but they have a special urgency today as performance-based accountability ups the ante in the push for school improvement and as social scientists remind everyone how important teachers are to student achievement, especially for poor and minority students. At the same time, these ideas raise difficult questions: Where and how could these reforms work? How should pay incentives be structured? How will teachers respond? Despite a profusion of arguments in all directions, little empirical evidence exists about the answers to these and other important questions about redesigning teacher compensation.

This School Finance Redesign Project (SFRP) report briefly summarizes three SFRP teacher compensation studies that begin to help build the evidence base for reform. The first study looks at teacher attitudes about pay reforms and provides a sense of what teachers think about particular incentive proposals. The second and third papers look at how high incentives would have to be to attract people with technical skills to teaching and to make working in high-needs schools more attractive. Together, the papers underscore both the importance and the difficulty of redesigning incentives in public education. In the end, they suggest that the most promising redesign efforts will depend on carefully-defined experiments and the leaps of faith they require.

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