When President Barack Obama announced his Race to the Top program in the summer of 2009, the national conversation seemed to focus solely on one issue, teacher incentive pay. Journalists, politicos and academics rushed to the podium to throw their two cents in, some asking whether there should be teacher incentive pay and others asking how to do it.
As states compete for the $5 billion set aside for Race to the Top, teachers and administrators need education policy experts like Jane Lincove, assistant professor of public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, to sift through the confusion.
An expert in education policy, Lincove has devoted her career to understanding and improving the decisions states and school districts make to improve public education. Lincove has focused on the economic incentives in education, most recently, teacher incentive pay.
Seen by many as the natural evolution of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind program, Race to the Top incentive pay rewards teachers directly for their contribution to student achievement, Lincove said.
"The Obama administration has been talking about teacher incentive pay for about a year and half," said Lincove. "But Texas has been doing it a lot longer than that. Texas has had three different teacher incentive pay programs and right now they have about $200 million a year that they have put into one program."
It is that program, the District Awards for Teacher Incentives (DATE), Lincove has made the focus of her research into exactly how districts with a myriad of different needs can implement teacher incentive pay structures that work.
According to Priscilla Aquino Garza, research and policy adviser for the Texas Education Agency and LBJ School alumna, Race to the Top does not require that states link teacher pay to student achievement. However, the grant structure might favor states that either already have teacher incentive pay systems in place, can prove they plan to implement them, or have plans to tie student achievement to teacher evaluations.
The issue, said Aquino Garza, is that there just isn't a lot of research on how states should create these systems. That's why Lincove asked Aquino Garza, her former student, to advise her as she researches the largest teacher incentive pay and student achievement program, DATE, ever implemented in the United States.
"There isn't a lot of great information about the effectiveness or best structure on teacher incentives," said Aquino Garza. "There is mostly anecdotal information and some best practices but it is still relatively untapped in terms of the national scheme. We tried to use the minimal research that is out there and what we found was that research often did not align with practical realities within the districts."
According to Aquino Garza, Lincove's research into the DATE program is the largest of its kind in scope and reaches beyond national education policy issues.
"National research on this issue is minor so we have to additionally consider international research," said Aquino Garza. "As an American professor, Lincove is contributing to a global conversation about teacher incentives that has been going on in other countries a lot longer than it has been going on in this country."
According to Lincove, more than 200 Texas school districts representing 150,000 teachers and two million students, opted to accept money from the state to create and implement their own teacher incentive pay programs, designed on the district level to meet that individual district's needs.
"Just in terms of sample size this is much bigger than we have ever had before," said Lincove. "For the first time, we can look at what kinds of districts wanted teacher incentive pay, and then, going forward, what components of teacher contracts are really important."
Some of those important components, said Lincove, are data that will help districts determine what size of bonuses to give to teachers who are improving student performance. Other deciding factors include setting realistic goals for teachers in terms of improving student performance, and what kinds of measurements outside of standardized tests districts can use to determine teacher effectiveness.
"Also, we can say these are methods that work well in big school districts and these are measures that work in small districts," said Lincove. "We can say that this is what works in elementary school and this is what works in high school because they are very different. There are probably several different combinations that are going to work in different contexts with different teachers. If you are a school district that is doing well, you probably don't want to offer a $5,000 bonus to get teachers to improve achievement. That should be reserved for districts that really need it."
According to Aquino Garza, the disparity of policy written for large and small urban districts is a key issue concerning teacher incentive pay.
"If a state is developing an incentive program, they might want to consider developing two, one for large urban districts and one for small rural districts because they have completely different needs," said Aquino Garza.
According to Lincove, this disparity between policy for urban schools and their rural counterparts was a fundamental flaw in the previous administration's No Child Left Behind policy. If parents felt a school was failing their children, No Child Left Behind gave them the option to move their children elsewhere.
"Well, that doesn't really help if there is no elsewhere," said Lincove. "The problem with rural schools is that there are no choices. There may be two elementary schools and one high school, or they may all be in one building."
Another issue surrounding teacher incentive pay programs that Lincove predicted could be a problem is determining which teacher, particularly in high school, generated a positive effect in a student's performance.
"There's always going to be a blurry area where the English teacher and the history teacher argue over who is more responsible for gains on a writing test," said Lincove. "There are going to be problems like that that need to be sorted out. But if you go into any school, there are going to be people who can tell you who the best teachers are and who the worst teachers are, and there needs to be a way for pay to reflect that."
According to Lincove, how districts choose to measure teacher efficiency can be a determining factor in the success of a teacher pay incentive program.
"The concern is that we focus on what we can measure," said Lincove. "And what we can measure is good test scores. People argue that what we see when we look at good test scores is the thing that the teacher did well was teach to the test. That isn't what schools are supposed to be doing with kids. There are a lot of things that teachers do particularly well that don't get included there."
Lincove suggests developing a measurement system that uses test scores but also takes into account the other aspects of good teaching that can benefit student achievement.
"I know working out an incentive contract based solely on test scores is problematic because test scores are just a portion of what teachers do," said Lincove. "It doesn't reward teachers for breaking through to kids who don't like talking to adults, or for mentoring, or for talking to parents. The basic idea is that teachers who do their jobs well by the perception of principals, the community, parents, students, and the school district should get paid more. I think it's dangerous to put any barriers in the way of that."
According to Lincove and Aquino Garza, when the research is presented to the American Educational Research Association in May the results will offer states 200 case studies of school districts, urban and rural, that may help states and districts devise their own programs based on their individual needs. Armed with richer data than have previously been available, districts creating teacher incentive pay structures to help secure grant money will have a greater chance of creating systems that not only benefit teachers who are doing well, but systems that also improve student achievement.
"Teacher incentives are not going away," said Aquino Garza. "The ways that teachers get paid in our system has been in existence since the beginning of compulsory education. The national conversation keeps coming back to whether we are compensating our teachers enough for what we are expecting them to do. More writing should be done upon the issue. That's why it's great to have someone like Jane who has both a national and international perspective doing this kind of research."