Adam Smith’s Prescription for Education

Adam Smith's Prescription for Education.

by Ryan Walters · March 16, 2019
The focus of many policies around the country is to create an environment for high quality education at public schools. States require teachers to gain certifications, log professional development hours, and create meticulous lesson plans in the hopes they are creating schools full of high-quality teachers, but are these current practices effective? The great economist and moral philosopher of the 18th century Adam Smith provides an intriguing insight on how to incentivize educators. While his recommendation was based on his experience with college professors, the same would apply for K-12 public schools today.

Adam Smith’s Educational Experience

Adam Smith began his academic career at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. After spending three years there, he attended Oxford as part of a traveling fellowship. While Smith recounted his time in Glasgow as meaningful (even later returning as a professor), he described Oxford as a sub-par institution of higher learning. According to Smith, “the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” Smith identified one of the major factors that created the difference between the professors at the two universities as the way each school paid their professors. At Oxford, teachers were paid a standard salary by the university, while the University of Glasgow based their salary upon how many students chose to take a particular professor. Smith stated that even if a professor “is naturally active and a lover of labour, it is his interest to employ that activity in any way, from which he can derive some advantage, rather than in the performance of his duty, from which he can derive none.” Even some teachers who truly have a passion for teaching will struggle at times for motivation if there is nothing they gain materially from consistently excelling at making a meaningful impact on students. While teaching provides an incredible amount of intrinsic motivation by giving teachers the ability to influence young people during some of the most formative years of their lives, extrinsic motivation must also be taken into account.

Merit-based Pay Incentives for Teachers

Most teachers get into education to make a difference in the lives of their students. Somewhere along the way many teachers lose some of that drive. Unruly students, lack of administrative support, or poor preparation are some of the factors that help explain why a 2014 study concluded that 41% of U.S. teachers leave the profession in their first five years. One other issue that causes some of the best teachers to leave or not teach to their potential is the lack of rewards for high performance. Most school districts use a pay scale that determines a teachers’ pay based on how many years he has been in the classroom. Teacher effectiveness is not a component in these pay scales. Many proponents of this type of pay argue that teachers did not choose their profession for the money, but because teaching is their passion. This creates a false binary argument. An individual may not make the decision to become a teacher for the salary, but still respond to monetary incentives. Teaching is an incredibly fulfilling profession, but after years of seeing below-average teachers receive the same pay as the highest performing teachers, many will become frustrated. The best teachers have high demands on their students and on themselves. As years go by these teachers may begin to ask themselves why they work so much harder than their colleagues if their efforts seem to go unrecognized by their districts.

Teachers who excel in the classroom should be financially rewarded by their districts, and those who do not should not continue to have their pay increased annually. If districts financially reward teachers based on their effectiveness in the classroom, not only will it motivate those teachers who have that internal motivation, it will motivate those who do not have it. Underperforming teachers should have to work to improve their craft if they want to make more money. Most professions follow a model where increases in pay are tied to performance, so why should teaching be any different? While this may seem like common sense, in many districts today, even the worst-performing teacher will see his salary increase the same amount as the best performing teacher yearly.

What makes an effective teacher?

Opponents of merit pay incentives for teachers argue that it is impossible to quantify the effectiveness of a teacher. The best way to judge a teacher’s effectiveness is an appropriate combination of qualitative and quantitative measures. Quantitative measures that provide data of students’ measured progress is an indicator of teacher effectiveness. Qualitative measures that can be observed can also provide a district with valuable insight in distinguishing their successful teachers. Qualitative measures may include student engagement, consistent use of high-level critical thinking activities, and extraordinary professional growth. Districts can use criteria that they feel best fit their particular needs. If a district has had traditionally low test scores, the district can heavily weigh student performance on standardized tests and reward teachers that maximize student growth. Another school may have a large dropout rate and use an evaluation model that emphasizes student engagement and teacher rapport with students. Schools can use performance pay to incentivize their staff to improve their effectiveness while simultaneously drawing more young people to the profession. A pay scale providing universal incremental bumps in salary every year does not attract as many young professionals as a pay scale that allows those same professionals to make significantly more if they prove themselves to be superior.

Proper Incentives

Smith’s description of universities as being “in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters” accurately describes the design of many K-12 schools. Often the biggest concern is not student learning, but instead the security of teachers’ jobs and pay. Great teachers should be compensated well because the effect they have is immeasurable. Districts should be intentional with what their policies incentivize. Tying pay incentives to job performance connects a district’s financial investment directly to the quality of learning experiences for students. The more schools structure themselves to reward high performance and deter poor performance, the more effective they will be. Ultimately, the more effective the teacher, the greater the chance the students will be successful, and that is what truly matters.

Ryan Walters teaches history and government courses in McAlester, Oklahoma. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter. · by Ryan Walters · March 16, 2019

Categories: right

Tagged in: