Columbus Dispatch (OH)
August 27, 2012
Money, when used as an incentive for tasks that involve creativity and outside-the-box thinking, has been shown to actually decrease the level of performance for most people.
This research has been done not only in the United States, but also in multiple cultures and countries for more than 50 years, and appears to be universally true. An excellent summary of this research can be found in the 2011 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink.
In fact, money has been found to be a useful incentive in only a very narrow category of basically rote activities. Combine this with the fact that most teachers chose their profession not on the basis of the money they could make, but instead on the good they could do in helping others, and why would an informed policymaker believe that merit pay would result in improved teaching and better student achievement?
A hidden assumption underlying merit pay is that teachers really know what to do to improve student achievement or could rather easily find out but choose not to do so. Further, by offering them a bonus of 1%, they would suddenly “shape up” and produce student achievement. This assumption also is totally wrong.
I have known many teachers over the course of my career, and almost all put forth tremendous time, effort and, frequently, their own money in their quest to help students be successful. If they knew how to further improve results, they would do whatever is necessary without any thought of a reward.
Instead of trying an idea such as merit pay, which has been tried unsuccessfully dozens of times over the past decades in various districts across the country, we should look to strategies the highest-performing countries are using.
The situation is not unlike what happened in the auto industry. American carmakers tried to make their production lines “employee-proof” by dictating from the top-down exactly what was to happen and giving employees the narrowest of roles. Meanwhile, W. Edwards Deming was helping Japanese carmakers construct employee teams with responsibility for production quality and the ability to act to improve it.
He taught the importance of driving fear out of the workplace, making supervisors responsible for helping people to do a better job, giving hourly workers back their pride of workmanship, abolishing merit ratings, and instituting a vigorous program of education and self-improvement. Much of what happened in the U.S. auto industry has happened to American education. The same kind of cure is appropriate.
Like Deming, there are several American educational leaders who have developed protocols and processes that enable teachers and the profession to learn and be more successful. But these processes are finding a more positive reception in training high-performing countries’ teachers and are being relatively ignored in the United States, where their help is desperately needed.
Examples include lesson study and instructional rounds. Here, teachers observe instruction of a colleague in groups, interview students regarding the understanding they gained from the lesson and look for the weaknesses in the lesson. They then discuss how it might be improved and field test the revised lesson. Teachers become very engaged in the problem-solving investigation, and the effectiveness of instruction goes way up.
The strongest predictor of a school with challenging demographics but high achievement is a characteristic called “collective efficacy.” This is the willingness of staff to take responsibility for every student and to work together for the success of each one. Unfortunately, a concept such as merit pay actually discourages teachers’ working together because the success of a colleague may decrease your merit award.
It’s critical we not continue to waste time and rhetoric on ineffective “solutions” such as merit pay and begin the real work of providing teachers with the time, strategies, protocols and responsibility to enable them to learn and to successfully implement a higher quality of instruction that would lead to higher student achievement. After all, they are the experts when it comes to teaching, not policymakers.
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