Incentives for Teachers
Dan Pink argues in this talk that extrinsic rewards like bonuses don’t motivate people to do well when charged with complex tasks. His conclusion: Businesses need to change the way they reward employees, by moving away from performance incentives and by emphasizing greater autonomy for each worker.
Does this apply to merit pay for teachers? Here are a few reasons merit pay is still good policy:
- The experiments Pink cites as evidence involved tasks that took just a few minutes to complete. In each of these tests, one group of people was asked to solve a puzzle in order to get a reward, while another group was asked to solve the puzzle without an incentive. The group facing the incentive took a little bit longer to complete the task. That group might have dawdled for a minute or two at first because the members were distracted by thoughts of what they would do with the reward. For activities that take up a short amount of time, every minute counts, and a few minutes of divided attention can set you back. But it doesn’t follow that people offered larger incentives for work done over the course of a year would spend a sizable chunk of that time dreaming of the reward. Maybe they would be distracted for a couple minutes — and then go on to work really hard for the rest of the year.
- In real life, people are not randomly assigned to professions the way subjects of an experiment are assigned to control groups. If certain people work harder than others for rewards, and if they make good teachers, an incentive system could attract the best people for the job. It wouldn’t matter if the average person responds better to a different pay structure.
- Merit pay doesn’t have to come in the “If you do this, then you get that” form that Pink warns against. If tying bonuses to test scores is counterproductive, there are other ways to use merit pay. Schools can reward teachers for their knowledge in subjects like math and science, to prevent valuable teachers from leaving for more lucrative careers. Schools can reward teachers who put in the most effort, or teachers with whose performance parents are most satisfied.
I’m still in favor of merit pay, but it can’t solve all of the education system’s problems. Merit pay alone won’t induce anyone to work hard in a system of few choices. Bonuses can’t outweigh the harmful effects of quashing new ideas, or of assigning teachers to schools based on arbitrary factors like seniority. That’s where Pink’s ideas about autonomy are important. A competitive education market would present teachers with more possibilities, some of which might include merit pay.