Why I’m Still in Favor of Merit Pay for Teachers
I’m not convinced by some economists’ assertions that offering merit pay and bonuses doesn’t make employees more productive. One of the economists professing that opinion is Dan Ariely, who describes his research in Wired. Here are some of the tasks he asked his subjects to perform:
We asked them, for example, to assemble puzzles and to play memory games while throwing tennis balls at a target.
When the subjects were offered big rewards, they did poorly on the puzzles.
I have no doubt that Ariely and his collaborators ran their experiments under rigorous laboratory conditions, but it’s a stretch to conclude from them that merit pay is bad. What goes on in the laboratory is far removed from day-to-day classroom activities. Good teaching depends more on verbal and interpersonal skills than on hand-eye coordination. And a controlled experiment with tennis balls is of necessity finished within minutes, whereas teaching takes place over the course of many months. The long work of establishing a rapport with students and building knowledge isn’t comparable to putting a little puzzle together.
To learn the true effects of bonuses and incentives, it’s better to look at studies that examine how real teachers in schools respond to merit pay.