Does Performance-Based Pay Motivate Teachers?

Written by: Reagan Flowers, Ph.D.

Pay has traditionally been based on education and years of experience, even though educator salaries vary by state. However, one of the largest school districts in the nation, right here in Houston, is trying a different approach. Will performance-based pay improve outcomes for underserved and underrepresented students?

What This Approach Looks Like

In March, former Dallas superintendent Mike Miles took the reins as superintendent of Houston’s more than 200,000 students. He is incorporating a compensation approach that considers students’ academic performance.

The district’s plans center on implementing school changes that are considered “underperforming.” The students we exist to help – those who are underserved and underrepresented – often attend schools in low-income neighborhoods with fewer resources and more significant learning gaps. Therefore, it’s of great interest to us here at C-STEM whether a performance-based compensation plan for teachers could ultimately benefit our students and teachers here in Houston.

Previous Results of Performance-Based Pay

Miles explored performance-based incentives in his previous superintendent roles in Dallas and Colorado Springs. In addition to rewarding teachers who best serve students, this model helps identify teachers who may need additional coaching or development.

Early research showed that performance-based pay did not impact teacher effort or student performance much. However, in recent years, the structure of these programs has expanded beyond standardized test scores as a measure of performance.

Shifting Focus to Recruiting and Retention

More recent efforts in performance-based pay have incorporated additional measures like garnering feedback from students and their families. These programs have had a more significant impact, as have those that offer professional development opportunities. Given the staffing shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic, this could be an opportunity to attract and retain talented, committed teachers in the schools where they are most needed.

Positive Impact on STEM

Though some performance-based pay programs throughout the country did not impact student achievement or teacher retention much, the Dallas program did show increased student achievement in math and reading. This performance-based pay program should be good news for our underserved and underrepresented STEM students.

In particular, looking beyond standardized testing for measuring achievement will be necessary. The STEM teachers who work with our students open their eyes to future possibilities through STEM competitions and projects while helping them build essential skills in problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, and technology.

One thing that will be essential for these new pay programs is clear communication. Teachers must understand what they can gain and how to do so. Many are already overwhelmed trying to do their jobs well and may see a program like this as adding more to their plates. In addition to poor communication, some studies also cited low award amounts as a reason performance-based pay initiatives failed.

Any efforts we can take to support teachers are much-needed. However, we must design performance-based pay programs to be as effective as possible, particularly regarding recruiting and retention. The teaching workforce is suffering, and therefore so are students. As always, the most impacted are underserved and underrepresented students. We must keep dreaming big and keep working to turn things around for them.

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11th Annual State of STEM Education Stakeholder Breakfast

Please join us at The Junior League of Houston from 7:30-9:00 AM