Aligning Teacher Incentives with Desired Outcomes

One of the important differentiating features of public charter schools is the possibility of innovating with respect to teacher incentives. Teacher pay in public schools is tied almost exclusively to the teacher's education level and years of teaching. The foundational principles of effective management indicate that "you get what you measure" and so thinking critically about the measuring stick applied to teacher incentives is an important exercise when thinking about student outcomes. For West Virginia public educators, pay incentives are based almost exclusively on their education level and their time in the job and, while experience and education are important predictors of success, neither of these factors tie directly to student outcomes or demand accountability on the part of teachers in general. Outstanding teachers will arise in any system as many teachers are intrinsically motivated to such an extent that the incentive structure is immaterial to their output, but extrinsically motivated individuals tend to flourish only when the incentives are aligned with organizational goals. Even very intrinsically motivated individuals will tend to perform a little better when the extrinsic incentives are aligned with the desired outcomes of their organization and so incentive structures matter. Thus, in order to maximize the effectiveness of any organization it is very important to align the incentive structures with the desired outcomes, but there are virtually no incentives to promote effective teaching within the public education system in West Virginia.


To further articulate this issue, I'll share an account from one of the teachers who truly inspired me in my high school years. Mr. Cushing was my public high school art teacher and he had a unique vision and drive for student learning and outcomes. He developed a very robust Advanced Placement studio art program, identified and obtained external sources of funding, and his teaching methods were truly innovative. He understood the importance of conveying both the theoretical elements of fine art without losing sight of the practical application and realities of where jobs existed in that space. He incorporated technological advances in his classroom that most college programs had not yet achieved. He also taught the importance of character and being a good person in his art lessons. The results of his approach to teaching were stunning.


Most of his AP students passed the AP exam, which required an intense portfolio submission that typically took three years to compile, and many of his top students went on to earn scholarships at major Universities in competitive fine arts programs. One particularly gifted student I sat in class with went on to CalArts and then a very successful career that has included significant roles in shaping the animation for several of the most successful animated films of all time. While I did not pursue a career in fine arts, my experience with the program put me in a position to successfully receive AP credit for my art portfolio and, more importantly, enriched my love for learning in general. I attribute that to Mr. Cushing and a handful of other truly outstanding teachers who motivated me to go on to complete college, two advanced degrees in law, and engage in rewarding careers as a CPA, attorney, and university professor in Accounting.


I've frequently thought back on some of the lessons I learned in Mr. Cushing's classes that went beyond just the immediate subject matter and one conversation about teacher incentives really stands out to me. One day after school during my senior year I was in Mr. Cushing's classroom to finalize a couple of projects for my AP studio art portfolio. He commonly opened his classroom after school for this purpose so that students had access to the materials to complete projects. In that setting I expressed my gratitude for Mr. Cushing's hard work and how it made a real difference for me personally as I knew not every teacher shared his level of dedication. He then taught me some things about teacher incentives that I will never forgot.


Mr. Cushing stated that there would be more teachers like him if the incentives in public education were aligned with actual student outcomes and program development, but that the opposite is largely true. He said that being a great teacher takes tremendous dedication of time and effort and that in most cases that effort is not rewarded and it's sometimes even punished. Most incentives in public education actually discourage teachers from going above and beyond as each additional hour spent teaching or building a program generally diminishes the hourly rate earned by that teacher. Additionally, achieving tremendous success in a particular program can often negatively impact relationships with other teachers who are concerned about scrutiny of their own work and who are not interested in increasing the expectations given the low salary structure in public education. Mr. Cushing longed for a change to the incentive structure for teachers, but suggested that such change would only come from the outside and was unlikely in his lifetime or mine. He also made me promise that I would not forget this conversation if I was ever in a position to promote positive changes in public education.


Mr. Cushing did not give his take on why the system would be difficult to change, but over time I have learned more about the entrenched incentive structures for public education and how that system stands in the way of progress in primary and secondary education. These flawed incentive structures are as bad in West Virginia as in any other state I've lived in and, not surprisingly, our educational outcomes are hovering around the bottom of all states in the U.S. If a principal or superintendent were to attempt to align public teacher incentives with organizational goals or student outcomes outside the charter school setting then they would face tremendous and hostile resistance from forces that primarily seek to maximize pay and minimize accountability for teachers, administrators, and support personnel. In fact, this resistance has been built into our laws in West Virginia that require lock-step pay for teachers based on tenure and education level as well as various administrative positions that lock up funding to such an extent that administrator's hands are tied when it comes to incentive alignment. Additionally, the West Virginia laws are designed to maximize jobs in education, broadly defined, to the detriment of teacher salaries that are among the lowest in the United States in spite of our high spending per student on education overall.


If West Virginia Academy becomes a reality, then our organization intends to implement incentives that more closely align with student outcomes and organizational goals. We will continue to think critically about how our teacher's spend their time to maximize student achievement. We will implement incentive raises and bonuses that are based on more than just education level and time in the job and will likely include additional factors such as parent and student satisfaction, program building, and improvement in student outcomes. We will also specifically tie incentives to extra-curricular activities and carefully measure effort and cordiality among our faculty when measuring overall teacher performance. Teachers that under perform in our system will be supported with opportunities for improvement and our base pay will be competitive with neighboring states to attract top talent and motivate all of our teachers to continuously improve. We plan to place more funding in teacher salaries and classrooms by maintaining a flatter organizational structure, but we will also seek external sources of funding in support of these goals. We believe such a structure will improve teacher job satisfaction as the expectations will be clearly stated up front and teachers will be supported to achieve higher expectations.


While we hope to provide a model for public schools more generally in West Virginia, the only space where this approach can be adopted in the public system in West Virginia under current law is through a charter school. Changes to the law to enable greater incentive alignment are unlikely to happen in the absence of a model of demonstrated success in our community and West Virginia Academy seeks to provide that successful model for policy makers in our state.


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