Merit Pay: Pay teachers enough so that money is no longer an issue
"We are purpose maximizers!"--Daniel Pink in Drive
I have to give them credit. So-called school reform experts absolutely refuse to let facts or research get in the way of what they honestly believe is a good idea. One has to go back almost one hundred years to find studies that demonstrate that pay motivates workers and those studies related to factory workers who were engaged in the performance of mechanical tasks.
I have searched and searched, but I have found no research that indicates that merit pay in any way motivates educated professionals or anyone who uses cognitive skills in their work. In fact, there is considerable evidence to indicate that pay for performance schemes actually "demotivate" everyone except workers engaged in mechanical or physical tasks.
Despite all the facts saying that merit pay does not work, prominent public and private officials as well as several major foundations insist that merit pay for teachers will raise student achievement. Perhaps this is a clear indication that the so-called reformers don't view teaching as a profession, or at least teaching in public schools is not a profession. Of course, those who teach their children in private schools, are professionals, who deserve to be well-paid and have excellent working conditions, including small class sizes. Those who teach the children of the masses on the assembly line will have to get bye with less.
I learned from practice
Take it from me, I worked in a merit pay system that we were all delighted to see end. Merit pay never improved student achievement and was extremely divisive. It drove a wedge between teachers, who guarded their file cabinets like Fort Knox, lest one of the colleagues find and use one of their ideas in one of their lessons.
Instead of encouraging teachers to work collaboratively, merit pay placed them in competition against each other. In addition, the absence of a growth model or any valid way of measuring student progress, the system degenerated into a “dog and pony show.” Those who could put on the best show were awarded merit pay. Merit pay also put a lot of pressure on principals and assistant principals to overrate teachers. If you, as an evaluator, didn't rate them high enough, they appealed and the district capitulated and then viewed you, the evaluator, as something less than competent. In the end, merit pay became an expectation not an exception. In fact, some schools in our district had 90% of their teachers receiving merit pay.
Research says forget merit pay
Long time school reformer, Michael Fullan, in his book, All Systems Go, directly and pointedly addresses the whole idea of merit pay saying, “Merit pay pleases a few and angers the rest.” He goes on to write at length about what research shows actually motivates teachers and merit pay is not even on the list. By the way, neither are punishment, threats, or coercion.
Here is Fullan’s list of “Incentives That Work for Teachers:
- Realizable Moral Purpose (Fullan cites this as most important)
- Good salaries (not incentives or merit pay)
- Decent Surroundings
- Positive Climate
- Strong Induction
- Extensive Professional Learning
- Opportunity to work with and learn from others
- Supportive, and even assertive, leadership
- Helpful Feedback
- Reasonable Class Size
- Long-term Collective Agreements
More Research on Teacher Pay
Research on motivation does not support the use of financial incentives for long-term professional growth. One study found that merit pay "was very unlikely to have raised employee motivation appreciably; it may indeed have been demotivating on balance." Pay motivates "piece workers" on an assembly line (Taylor), but it is not a factor in motivating professionals or knowledge workers. At best, merit pay is a temporary “satisfier" (Herzberg).
A recent report stated emphatically, "I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools."
In yet another study findings suggested "students taught by incentivized teachers did no better or no worse than students taught by regular salaried teachers.
The incentive scheme "did not set off significant negative reactions of the kind that have attended the introduction of merit pay elsewhere", the researchers wrote. "But neither did it yield consistent and lasting gains in test scores. It simply did not do much of anything."
Is there any case in which pay would motivate teachers? Researchers Akerlof and Yellen, found that "paying great people a little more than the market demands, helped attract better talent, reduce turnover, and boost productivity and morale. In fact, the firms making the irrational and seemingly frivolous choice to "overpay" their employees, rather than construct elaborate incentives, outperformed their competitors."
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink reinforces the idea that incentives increase output only for workers engaged in simple, straightforward, mechanical tasks. However, in occupations that involve even "rudimentary cognitive skills," monetary rewards actually lower performance. Pink points out that we are "purpose maximizers." We care about mastery and we want self-direction. Money and the focus on pay and incentives "unmoors us from purpose."
Teachers deserve to be well compensated, but merit pay is not the answer.
Pay teachers as professionals who engage in high order cognitive skills every minute of every day. Pay teachers like unskilled factory workers, part-time workers, or Peace Corps volunteers and that is what you get. Pay teachers like assembly line workers engaged in simple mechanical tasks and we get assembly line schools that sort students for success. We will never attract top graduates or raise the quality of education by paying teachers less than we pay our bus drivers, which is the case in the Washington, D.C. area. We need to pay teachers enough to take money off of the table, but because we refuse to do so, pay remains an issue.
What Teachers Want
Supportive Leadership - More than anything else, including higher pay (45%), 40,000 teachers surveyed reported that they want supportive leadership (68%). Supportive leadership ensures that all of the following are available to teachers in the school.
Sense of Purpose - In the long run, what most motivates teachers is a sense of purpose--the desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. After all, that is why we became educators. However, when teachers drive old beaten up cars and they can't even afford to live in the communities in which they teach, it is hard to talk to them about a higher purpose.
Mastery - Teachers want to feel that they are skilled professionals. They want to feel that they are continually growing and improving. They want quality professional development that actually helps them improve their practice.
Self-Direction - Teachers want input into the key decisions that impact their profession on a daily basis. They want opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues.
Team - Teachers want to feel that they are a part of a collective effort. Teaching does not have to be lonely endeavor. Schools work best when teachers are committed to each other and the success of their students.
Professionals - Teachers want to be treated as professionals. They want to be treated like people not workers.
Finally, if we insist on rewards, reward teachers with better working conditions and better equipment. Reward the behaviors that we really want. We want schools and teams of teachers to succeed, not individuals. Therefore, if we insist on providing incentives, we should reward schools not individuals.
My Final Take
Principals and school leaders don't control teacher compensation, but we have a big part in providing supportive leadership that focuses on what is important--a higher purpose, mastery, self-direction, team effort, and professionalism. In fact, when you think about it, money can't buy any of the most important things that teachers say they want. Treating teachers like professionals, like people, and not workers will go a long way to reconnecting them with the sense of purpose that they most desire.