Tag Archives: Fraser Institute

Why paying teachers for student test scores is a bad idea

While everyone in British Columbia is paying attention to the teachers’ strike, the Fraser Institute launched its latest effort to marketize education. This week the Fraser Institute, a neoliberal think tank, released a report promoting incentivized pay for teachers.

Teacher Incentive Pay That Works, summarizes 10 “case studies” from around the globe, which the Fraser Institute argues illustrates successful incentive pay programs. The press release for the report is titled “Evidence shows teacher incentive pay improves student performance,” which is ironic since the report ignores the long history of these schemes, and studiously avoids the details of the debate around value-added measurements in the United States (which is currently enthralled in a public revolt against test-driven education), as well as evidence illustrating damage done to schools and learning under such schemes.

The Illusion of Paying Teachers for Performance

… history shows that any pay-for-performance gains are mostly illusions. Not only do they fail to improve student achievement, they are also destructive, encouraging administrators and teachers to cheat by manipulating statistics, or by teaching to the test. Inevitably, children wind up the losers because curricula are narrowed to include subjects that can be taught by drill and repetition and that are easily measured. (Wilms & Chapleau, 1999)

Wilms and Chapleau note that pay-for-performance was first rolled out in England, around 1710! Teachers’ salaries were based on their students’ scores on examinations in the “three ‘Rs.” “This early payment-for-results system had great appeal because it promised to help keep children from poor families in school, where they might learn the basics.”

The scheme became a permanent fixture in English schools by 1862 (as part of the Revised Education Code) and was in effect for over 30 years. Historical accounts of England’s scheme describe teachers and administrators as becoming obsessed with the systems financial rewards, which according to Wilms and Chapleau were dubbed “the cult of the [cash] register.”

Curriculum was narrowed to include just the easily measured basics. The sciences and the arts, along with many other non-tested activities disappeared from schools (foreshadowing the disappearance of recess from elementary schools in the United States as a result of the test driven reforms like Obama’s Race To The Top).

Teaching became increasingly mechanical, as teachers found that drill and rote repetition produced the “best” results. One schools inspector wrote an account of children reading flawlessly for him while holding their books upside down.

The English system of pay for performance produced a mechanical approach to teaching and learning that eroded teacher creativity. Standards for student success (or failure) were spelled out in detail (just as the new Fraser Institute reports as a “Key Lesson 1” in their study, “Define what we expect teachers to do.”)

An inspector wrote that the Education Code “did all the thinking for the teacher; it told him in precise detail what he was to do each year.” Another recalled, “Every teacher in the country takes his orders from the Code, studies the Code, and devotes his energies to satisfy or to circumvent it.”

Predictably the English system imploded in a cheating scandal that included falsification of records and teachers coaching student through examinations, not unlike the recent massive cheating scandal in Atlanta, Georgia and across the USA, which highlights deleterious effects of test-driven education.

the overwhelming judgment was that it was unsound policy. Cynics referred to schools as “grant factories” and children as “grant-earning units.”

In the later third of the 19th Century, teacher pay-by-results appeared briefly in Canada. Student achievement initially rose but, as in England, teachers started to focus on students who were most likely to succeed, turning their classrooms into test prep centres. By 1883 the Canadian experiment ended as a result of public outrage.

One hundred years later in the United States, the Nixon administration funded an experiment in “performance contracting” in which school funding was tied to students standardized test scores. The experiment provided incentives for administrators, teachers, and students. Private contractors, who were suppose to bring innovation and business know-how to the effort, were given contracts in 18 cities to raise student achievement levels in reading and math.

Turns out contractors offered no pedagogical innovations only teaching to the test. The project was declared a failure in the midst of poor results and a cheating scandal.

As Wilms and Chapleau illustrate, the wake of pay-for-results education reforms is strewn with detritus of dishonest behaviour (cheating, falsifying records) and teaching to the test.

Similar incentive efforts in the 1990s and the recent examples of cheating scandals in Atlanta and Texas prove that incentive pay reform is a failed idea.

Flawed Logic of Performance Pay

Donald Gratz, the author of Perils and Promise of Performance Pay, describes the flawed logic of incentive pay plans that aim to boost student achievement.

False assumptions #1: Teachers lack motivation.

Teachers care about their students and want them to succeed. “Does anyone really think that large numbers of teachers know what their students need but are willfully withholding it? That they would help students learn more, if only someone offered them a bonus to do so? This is a highly cynical view of teachers, one that teachers understandably find demeaning, not motivational.”

False Assumption #2: Schools are Failing

The manufactured crisis of school failure is a basis for corporate education reform or what is also called the Global Education Reform Movement (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). This is not to say that there aren’t troubled schools or that public schools do not need to be improved, but most students have higher levels of academic achievement now than in the past.

False Assumption #3: Measuring Academic Achievement is All that Counts

“If we want students to develop as well-rounded human beings who are empathetic, thoughtful, and creative, we will have to include these characteristics among our goals for schools and seek ways to gauge our success. A system that rewards schools, students, and teachers only for test scores will get mostly test scores. This is not what most of us want for our children.”

And What About the Research on Incentive Pay?

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has compiled information surveying the research on paying teaching for test scores and concludes that it is a practice that damages schools and undermines learning.

Paying for higher test scores creates score inflation, not genuine learning. Paying for test scores encourages teaching to the test, which creates inflated results without improving learning. (Koretz, 2009; Madaus, Ressell & Higgins, 2009; Nichols & Berliner, 2007)

Payment for performance narrows the curriculum to what is tested and leads to reduced focus on or elimination of important subjects, such as social studies, science, art, music, and physical education. (McMurrer, 2007; Morton & Dalton, 2007)

It is unfair and ineffective to pay teachers for test results that are often marred by scoring and other errors. (Rhoades & Madaus, 2003).

Payment for gains in student scores does not solve the problem of test-induced educational damage. There are too many flaws in “value-added” measurement approaches to trust the results. (McCaffrey, et al., 2005; Bracey, 2007; National Research Council, 2009)

Most teachers’ primary motivation is not high pay. If it were, they would have chosen another profession. Teachers know test scores are a poor barometer of their abilities, so pay for performance damages rather than enhances their sense of professionalism and morale (Whitford & Jones, 2000; Nichols & Berliner, 2007). It can decrease motivation (Ryan & LaGuardia, 1999). Payment for “performance” also has been shown to increase cheating (Pfeffer, 2007).

Payment for test scores may not even to raise student scores and has been shown in one country to reduce scores. This is despite the extensive evidence of score inflation from teaching the test (Martins, 2009; Springer, Podgursky, & Lewis, 2009).

Paying individual teachers for student scores encourages unhealthy competition. Incentive pay may reduce cooperation among teachers and can cause divisions among staff and parents (MacInnis, 2009; Pfeffer, 2007). In addition the OECD has recently released a report that says competition in education is a failed policy. The bottom-line:

Research on pay for performance finds that it rests on dubious assumptions and lacks evidence it succeeds, and there is good evidence that it often fails.


Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. New York: Basic Books.

Bracey, J. 2007. Evaluating value added. FairTest Examiner, July. http://www.fairtest.org/whats-value-growth- measures

Bradshaw, W. J., & Gallup, A. M. (2008, September). Americans speak out: Are educators and policy makers listening? Phi Delta Kappan, 90(10), 7–31.

Gratz, D. B. (2009). Perils and promise of performance pay. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Koretz, D. (2009, April 29). What’s Missing in Obama’s Education Plan? Education Week. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/04/29/30koretz_ep.h28.html?tkn=QTLFEqyaUfgkzI4vRyp6Q0c2kzhDTpngNM 9B&print=1

MacInnes, G. (2009). Eight reasons not to tie teacher pay to standardized test results. Century Foundation Issue Brief. http://www.tcf.org/publications/education/gordon%20brief.pdf

Madaus, G., Russell, M., & Higgins, J. (2009). The Paradoxes of high stakes testing. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Press.

Martins, P. (2009, March). Individual teacher incentives, student achievement and grade inflation. Queen Mary, University of London, CEG-IST and IZA, Discussion Paper No. 4051.

McCaffrey, D., Koretz, D., Lockwood, J.R., & Hamilton, L. (2005). Evaluating value-added models for teacher accountability. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

McMurrer, J. (2007). Choices, changes, and challenges: Curriculum and instruction in the NCLB Era. Center on Education Policy. http://www.cep-dc.org/

Morton, B. & Dalton, B. (2007). Changes in instructional hours in four subjects by public school teachers of grades 1 through 4 (Issue Brief). National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007305

National Research Council, Board on Testing and Assessment. (2009). Letter Report to the U.S. Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund. National Academy of Sciences, available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12780

Nichols, S.L, & Berliner, D.C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America’s schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

OECD. (2014). When is competition between schools beneficial? PISA in focus, 42. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/PISA%20in%20Focus%20N42%20(eng)–Final.pdf

Pfeffer, J. (2007). Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives. http://federalworkforce.oversight.house.gov/documents/20070313111150-45256.pdf

Rhoades, K. & Madaus, G., (2003). Errors in standardized tests: A systemic problem. Boston College. http://www.bc.edu/nbetpp

Ryan, R. M., & La Guardia, J. G. (1999). Achievement motivation within a pressured society: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to learn and the politics of school reform. In T. Urdan (Ed.) Advances in motivation and achievement (Vol 11). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Springer, M., Podgursky, M., & Lewis, J. (2009). Texas Educator Excellence Grant (TEEG) program: Year two evaluation report. http://www.performanceincentives.org/ncpi_publications/policybriefs.asp

Whitford, B. L., & Jones, K. (2000). Accountability, assessment, and teacher commitment. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wilms, W. W., & Chapleau, R. R. (1999, November 3). The illusion of paying teachers for student performance. Education Week, 19(10), 34, 48.

The Problem with Zeros

When Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Shepard High School in Edmonton, was suspended last May for defying the school’s grading policy by giving zeros to students for incomplete assignments, a nationwide debate erupted on the role of grades, student responsibility and motivation, as well as the professional judgment of teachers.

Over the summer, no-zero grading policies generated a no small amount of opinions and dubious claims about research on the impact of grading of student learning and achievement.

Dorval, a veteran of 35 years in the classroom, received his termination notice from Edmonton Public schools on September 14 for “repeated acts of insubordination, unprofessional conduct, and refusal to obey lawful orders”. An Edmonton School Board committee is currently reviewing the district’s assessment policy, which does not prohibit the use of zero grading (Dorval violated his school’s grading policy). Edmonton school superintendent Edgar Schmidt might have given a hint as to the direction the district policy is heading with a letter to parents last week declaring the district “expect[s] students to do their work … we will hold them accountable … we have not and will not pass students who do note complete their course requirements”. (There are no rules in British Columbia to prevent teachers from assigning zeros to students for incomplete work.)

Dorval was on his way back to the classroom in less than a week, at a private school where he’s allowed to give students zeros, but the logic for and research behind no-zero policies continues to be the subject of gross distortion in the mainstream media.

A common complaint voiced by opponents of no-zero grading policies is there is little or only flawed research to support such policies. For example, The Vancouver Sun and The Province have both recently run a column by Michael Zwaagstra in which he goes so far as to claim that research evidence to support no-zero policies are based on a single flawed study.

Zwaagstra, a teacher and research fellow at Winnipeg’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy—which the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has described as a Fraser Institute “clone”—also echoes the common-nonsense criticism that no-zero grading policies teach students they can fail to do their work and still get a reward.

These are specious claims.

Many of the arguments against no-zeros policies are based on outmoded and potentially harmful ways of thinking about the effect of grades on students’ behaviors and motivations to learn.

Historically, psychological theories viewed rewards as motivating people (and animals) to work and earn them. Over the past 50 years, research in cognitive psychology has shown that rewards are not motivators. Indeed, offering a reward (a good grade) contingent on behavior can actually decrease students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. One explanation for this is that students view the rewards as controlling their behavior, which is clearly the intent when teachers use zero grades.

The goal of schools should be to create motivated learning—motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills—rather than motivation to comply. Motivated learning requires schools to take multiple factors into account, including the use of rewards, but also the importance of social interaction, the role of emotions, self-regulation, and the fact that motivational processes work differently in different situations (for example, the need for achievement varies within individuals so that some students may be motivated to achieve in one subject, but not another, or in social domains, but not in athletics, etc.).

While most educators eschew the use of grades as a form of punishment, the fundamental and often unstated logic behind arguments against no-zero policies is “students need to suffer the consequences for not doing the work!”

This is not to say that grades are unimportant, studies confirm that students view high grades as positive recognition of their accomplishments and that some students will work to avoid the consequences of a low grade. But, there are no research studies that support the use of low grades as punishments.

Instead of prompting greater effort from students, using zeros in grading decreases motivation to learn and can promote a sense of helplessness to improve. When zeros are averaged into course grades their effects are intensified as students quickly see that a single zero gives them little chance for success. Often, to protect their self-images, students will then regard grades (and school) as irrelevant and meaningless.

Moreover, assigning zeroes to students’ work seldom reflects what a student has learned or is able to do. This was illustrated when my son produced some fabulous photographs from his trip to Alaska this summer. When he was reminded of his less than stellar grade in photography class at his East Vancouver high school he replied, “just because I got a bad grade doesn’t mean I didn’t learn anything!” If students’ grades are to reflect what they have learned or mastered then assigning zeros is a failed approach.

There are alternatives to zero-grading that support and encourage motivated learning (as opposed to compliance). Students can learn to accept responsibility for their actions and be held accountable by using an “I” or “Incomplete” grade with detailed requirements for successful completion of work and requiring afterschool or Saturday classes. These alternatives require resources and adopting an approach to schooling that focuses on helping all students to become successful, motivated learners, rather than attempting to bend students to the will of the school.

When grades are used as weapons to force compliance, which is typically the case when zero grades are assigned, what does this say about a school’s approach to education? There is no evidence that assigning zeros teaches students to be responsible or accountable. There is plenty of evidence that assigning zeros can undermine students’ motivation to learn, while emphasizing that the school is more interested in students’ behavioral compliance than their learning.