Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Surprising Truth: Does Merit Pay Encourage Motivation for Better Teaching?

There is an ideological belief that merit pay will do for the teaching profession what the bell did for Pavlov's salivating dog.  Teachers would dance remarkably better if the music was set to the tune of more money.

Of course, teachers should be compensated fairly for their education, skills, experience, wisdom and down-right hard work.  However, what is wrong with the thought that teachers should be incentivized?  Diane Ravitch writes:

Note that they assume that most people—in this case, teachers—are lazy and need a promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students. It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an innate desire to serve others. Teachers should certainly be well compensated, but not many enter the classroom with money as their primary motivation.

Many would argue that incentives are the way businesses are run and the same model would be beneficial to the ways schools should be run.  Professor Bruce Baker brings up a great point, here:

If rating teachers based on standardized test scores was such a brilliant revelation for improving the quality of the teacher workforce, if getting rid of tenure and firing more teachers was clearly the road to excellence, and if standardizing our curriculum and designing tests for each and every component of it were really the way forward, we’d expect to see these strategies all over the home pages of web sites of leading private independent schools, and we’d certainly expect to see these issues addressed throughout the pages of journals geared toward innovative school leaders, like Independent School Magazine.

So then, what is the philosophy taken by the elite schools - classrooms for children of reform sales-folk?  (Referenced in the Baker piece):
Independent schools are privileged. We do not have to respond to the whims of the state, nor to every or any educational trend. We can maximize our time attuned to students and how they learn, and to the development of curriculum that enriches them and encourages the skills and attitudes of independent thinkers.

Where would such a philosophy come from?  Legislation put forth by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC):

Private schools shall be accorded maximum flexibility to educate their students and shall be free from unnecessary, burdensome, or onerous regulation. 

Did you REALLY see that statement? from 
onerous regulation.  

OK.  Let's get back to the original curiosity...

How is it that merit pay does not work for in the field of education?  View this talk by Daniel Pink as he discusses for which type of work that merit pay will and will not work.  More importantly, pay attention to what really motivates people to work:

There is a long history of failed merit pay philosophy - since the 1920s, yet the Department of Education ignores the science and research.  As Diane Ravitch writes:

After a three-year trial, the researchers concluded that the teachers in the treatment group did not get better results than those in the control group, who were not in line to get a bonus. There was a gain for 5th graders in the treatment group, but it washed out in 6th grade.

Bottom line: Merit pay made no difference. Teachers were working as hard as they knew how, whether for a bonus or not.

But to what effect? The very next day after the release of the Nashville study, the U.S. Department of Education handed out many millions of dollars for merit-pay programs across the country and announced its intention to spend $1.2 billion on merit pay.

Ideology trumps evidence.

Or, what about this piece in the Harvard Business Review (HBR):

"A recent teacher-incentive program aimed at boosting student performance in New York City had no effect at all..."

Larry Ferlazzo references this quote from HBR:

So, just ask any good teacher this question:

Why did you want to become a teacher?
What is your motivation?

The answers will vary.
But at the core, the answer will resonate,
in the words of Steve Jobs:

"I want to put a ding in the universe."

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