Motivating teachers with incentivised pay and coaching: Understanding factors influencing participant recruitment failure

Students raise their hands during class

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The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) commissioned a randomised controlled trial to explore the impact of incentivised pay and peer coaching in the teaching of mathematics. However, researchers were unable to recruit enough participants for the study.

To help future studies, the EEF asked the researchers to explore why their recruitment effort was unsuccessful.

Background

Although performance-based compensation systems in primary and secondary education are no longer a novelty in the US, they are still not yet common in the UK. Research from the US finds mixed results regarding the effects of performance-related pay on pupil achievement, but there is limited evidence around this concept from the UK.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) therefore commissioned RAND Europe, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, to conduct a randomised controlled trial to explore the impact of incentivised pay and peer coaching in the teaching of mathematics. The incentive payment would have been in addition to normal teacher pay, with the final amount being dependent on the performance of pupils in the end of year tests. Coaching was included as part of the study, on the basis that some teachers might be motivated by pay incentives but might require support to improve their performance.

However, the researchers faced difficulty recruiting teachers, and for this reason they subsequently cancelled the study.

Goals

Following the cancellation of the randomised controlled trial, EEF commissioned RAND Europe to explore the factors that influenced the low recruitment of teachers into the study and why it was ultimately unsuccessful. As interest in teacher incentives or pay for performance is likely to continue, the EEF felt that it would be important to learn as much as possible from this work for future projects.

Methodology

RAND Europe gathered evidence on the different aspects that may have led to the recruitment shortfall through the following ways:

  • Examining the intervention, design of the trial and communication strategies;
  • Reviewing the recruitment approach and materials;
  • Analysing the results of an online survey completed by 83 teachers who opted out of the trial; and
  • Conducting semi-structured telephone interviews with 13 teachers (six who had opted out of the trial, five who had opted in and two headteachers).

Findings

  • Teachers who opted out of the trial tended to be resistant to the principle of financial incentives, but these views were not universally held. Of survey respondents, 64 per cent agreed with the statement that 'Awarding a bonus is not an appropriate way to incentivise teachers to make extra effort', while 36 per cent disagreed.
  • Some of the teachers and both headteachers expressed serious concerns about the perceived unfairness and impact of a financial incentive that, as a consequence of the research design, would have been available to some teachers but not others.
  • Respondents expressed concern about teachers in receipt of the incentive payment 'gaming the system' by focusing more attention on children whose test performance would influence the incentive award, and less attention on children whose test performance would not influence the incentive award.
  • In terms of factors motivating teachers' participation in the trial, teachers reported interest in coaching, the attraction of receiving additional pay, and the contribution the trial would make to education research. A number of teachers reported interest in additional coaching and mentoring, but some were concerned that the trial would disrupt existing coaching programmes or place added pressure on their time.
  • The communications strategy for the trial could have been refined, but this was not the primary reason for under-recruitment. Among those who made an active decision to participate or not, there was a good understanding of the trial, with teachers believing that they had enough information to make an informed decision. However, not all teachers were aware that they had the opportunity to participate and not all teachers had read the emails intended for them.

Recommendations

The researchers made a number of recommendations for how recruitment for the trial could be improved in the future.

  • Recruitment strategies in schools should carefully consider how to secure senior staff buy-in. Our findings reveal that securing headteacher or senior buy-in is crucial to set the general mood for acceptability among teachers in a school.
  • Developers and evaluators should consider placing greater emphasis on the involvement of school practitioners in designing trials and the way they are communicated.
  • Researchers and funders should consider widening participation in trials, where possible, to include more than one region or academy trust.
  • For research projects as complicated as this trial, it is critically important for funders, developers and evaluators to meet iteratively to discuss and resolve questions.