One Angry Teacher: Why Incentives Won't Make Me Work Harder

One Angry Teacher: Why Incentives Won't Make Me Work Harder

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Countless studies have shown giving teachers more money doesn’t change student outcomes.
So why are people surprised about a recent study out of Vanderbilt University that shows paying teachers extra money didn’t improve student performance?

The concept of teacher incentives is based on the ideology that teachers will do a better job if they are financially motivated to work harder.

This implies that teachers aren’t trying hard enough right now. As a teacher, I find that assumption extremely offensive.

I am hard on teachers. I firmly support tenure reform, and I believe there are a lot of bad teachers ruining our schools.

However, the good teachers far outnumber the bad. And let me tell you something about good teachers: we can’t do much better.

For example, a friend of mine teaches at another high school in my district. He stays at school past 6 or 7 p.m. daily; he is usually the last teacher to leave campus. He calls his students’ houses. He grades more papers than anyone I know. He spends his weekends doing fundraisers or other school-related activities without any additional compensation.

If my friend were told he could receive addiitional money for “doing more,” he’d laugh and say, “How do you propose I do more?”

Good teachers are already good at their jobs.

We buy supplies with our own money. We do weekend college trips for free. We shop at outlet stores because most resources aren’t available at our schools. We’re already working at maximum capacity. We are already motivated. We are already going above and beyond the call of duty.

Asking us to “work harder” isn’t just ludicrous—it's insulting.

We didn’t go into teaching for the money. We teach because it’s an extremely rewarding job where the good days outnumber the bad (hopefully). The kids’ lives we affect, in turn, make our lives complete.

The Vanderbilt study compared students taught by one group of public school teachers receiving no financial incentives to improve test scores (the control group) with another group that could earn $5,000 to $15,000 in bonuses if student performance improved. The two-year study found no substantial difference between test scores for the two groups.

Naysayers argue that the Vanderblt research is only one study and and that more research is needed. But even with a far bigger sample size than 300 Nashville teachers you wouldn't see improvement in student outcomes, because the good teachers are already working as hard as they can.

Meanwhile, even with financial incentives, bad teachers won’t do much better for a few reasons: Some  think they are good teachers, so paying them won’t change the quality of their instruction. Others gave up a long time ago and are just waiting to retire. Plenty of bad teachers simply don't care.

Other studies on teacher incentives may show improved student performance among a small group of teachers—a few bad ones who get a little better, new teachers who are still perfecting their craft.
But most of the data will simply reiterate what we already know: offering incentives to teachers isn’t necessarily going to do much for student outcomes.

To improve student performance, we need to stress teacher evaluations, not teacher incentives.
And schools should reward teachers who are already doing a good job instead of offering incentives for improvement. Let’s talk about raising teacher salaries. Let’s remove the teachers who aren’t doing their jobs well and pay those who are good a higher wage.

The dangling carrot of teacher incentives is rotten throughout. Of all the education discussions that we need to have, a debate about teacher incentives isn’t one of them.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher in the East Bay. He is also the founder of, a website dedicated to teachers in our toughest schools.