Dan Pink’s take on “merit pay” in education

A few months ago, I read Drive – Dan Pink’s latest book about “the surprising truth about what truly motivates us” – and instantly found myself reading it through my educational lens, through the lens of the profession where it is the love of learning more than anything that draws me in (along with so many of my colleagues).  

On March 20th, a small group of central Virginians were able to discuss this latest book with Pink as he visited Charlottesville as a speaker during the Virginia Festival of the Book.  An intimate 40+ person crowd collected in Charlottesville’s CitySpace on the first warm day of the year, engaging in a discussion about the concept of “merit pay” in education as it relates to the central theme of Pink’s book.  During that conversation, Pink asserted, “What teachers, principals, and school superintendents do- to work so hard, for so little pay, in a profoundly screwed-up system- is heroic.”

The contents of that powerful discussion found their way into my e-mail inbox yesterday afternoon in the form of Dan Pink’s latest e-newsletter, sent out for all subscribers to enjoy. Many thanks to Dan Pink (@danielpink on twitter) for adding his perspective to this continuing conversation:

UPDATE: Since the publication of this blog, Dan Pink has posted “Eight Points about Merit Pay for Teachers” on his own website. Pretty high-quality post, highly recommended reading.

Q: Dan, there’s been a lot of talk lately about “merit pay” for schoolteachers – that is, tying teacher salaries to student performance, especially on standardized tests. What do you think of this approach?

A: A few years ago, I thought this was a great idea. Incentivize teachers and the pay the outstanding one more? What coud be wrong with that?  It’s logical, straightforward, and fair.

However, after looking at 50 years of research on human motivation for DRIVE, I’ve changed my mind. I think that this approach, despite is surface appeal, has more flaws than strengths – and that there’s a simpler, more effective alternative. 

Here’s my reasoning:

For starters, most proposals for “merit pay” (sorry, I can’t use the term without quotation marks) tie teacher compensation to student scores on standardized tests. That’s a disaster. It focuses teachers almost single-mindedly on training their students to pencil in correct answers on multiple choice tests – and turns classrooms into test prep academies. (What’s more, it can encourage cheating, as Georgia’s experience shows.) So let’s knock out this approach to merit pay.

A second option is for school principals to decide who gets performance bonuses.  Again, there’s a certain theoretical appeal to this method. But I’ve yet to meet a teacher who considers it fair, let alone motivating.  Teachers worry that principals don’t have sufficient information to make such decisions and that “merit pay” would be based too heavily on who’s best at playing politics and currying favor.  So let’s kibosh this method, too.

A third approach is to use a variety metrics to determine who gets a bonus. You could measure teacher performance using: standardized scores for that teacher’s students; evaluations of the teacher’s peers, students, parents, and principal; a teacher’s contribution to overall school performance; time devoted to professional development; how much the teachers’ students improved over the previous year; and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it has a huge downside: It would force resource-strapped schools to spend enormous amounts of time, talent, and brainpower measuring teachers rather than educating students.  Schools have enough to do already. And the costs of establishing and maintaining elaborate measurement systems would likely outweigh the benefits.

In short, I can’t see a way to construct a merit pay scheme that is both simple and fair. What’s more, it strikes me as slightly delusional to think that people who’ve intentionally chosen to pursue a career for public-spirited, rather than economic, reasons will suddenly work harder because they’re offered a few hundred extra dollars.  Truth be told, most teachers work pretty damn hard already.

Fortunately, I think there’s an easier and more elegant solution – one that’s also supported by the science of human motivation. 

First, we should raise the base pay of teachers. Too many talented people opt out of this career because they’re concerned about supporting their families. For prospective teachers, raising base salaries would remove an obstacle to entering the profession.  For existing teachers, it’s a way to recognize the importance of their jobs without resorting to behavior-distorting carrots and sticks. The science reveals a paradox about money and motivation: In most cases, the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Raising base salaries would help take the issue of money off the table. Instead fretting about paying their bills on an insufficient salary or scheming to get a small bonus, teachers could focus on the work they love.

At the same time, we have to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. Teaching, like any profession, has its share of duds. Showing these folks the door, which now is quite difficult, is the right thing to do.  It’s better for students, of course. But it’s also better for the teachers who remain. Just as it’s very motivating to have great colleagues, it’s incredibly de-motivating to have lazy or incompetent ones.

So . . . if I could wave a magic wand, I’d dispense with elaborate and complicated “merit pay” schemes for teachers. Instead, I’d raise teachers’ base pay and make it easier to get rid of bad teachers.  That solution is simpler, fairer, and much more consistent with what truly motivates high performance.

Thanks again for reading.


Dan Pink

P.S.  Hope you’ll also check out the Pink Blog if you get a moment.  Our two most popular posts last month explored whether purpose is really an effective motivator and examined the differences between failure and mediocrity

DanPink.com is my website on business, motivation and creativity.  You can also follow me on Twitter @danielpink.

4408 Butterworth Place, Washington, DC 20016, USA

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