Friday, April 16, 2010

merit pay- thoughts from Daniel Pink

Our school's occupational therapist forwarded me an email this morning from Daniel Pink, a writer I have to admit I've never read, but have always intended to read (the best of intentions...) I love his thoughts on merit pay and thought I had to share it here. I love his thoughtfulness on the subject. Enjoy!

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. 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

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 (

1 comment:

Kstack said...

Sounds good, but. . .How would he suggest we "make it easier to get rid of bad/incompetent teachers"?

Who decides what a bad teacher is?

In our district, the evaluation process provides for regularly scheduled evaluations. (More often early in a teachers career.) Teachers who are found to be lacking are put on a plan of assistance, whereby they are given the time and support they need to improve their teaching. If, after completing the plan of assistance, they have not improved, then they can be non-renewed/terminated due to performance.

People seem to think that Unions prevent administration from firing incompetent teachers. But teachers and their unions do not want to protect incompetent teachers. The union has agreed to this evaluation tool. Too often, it's the administration that hires incompetent teachers, and principals that fail to evaluate them according to the guidelines agreed upon. It is then that the union "goes to bat" for a teacher who might be the victim of some bad politics, a grudge or an improper evaluation.

The definition of a good or bad teacher can vary greatly within a school district, and teachers need to know they have the freedom to be creative and innovative, without fear that their methods might be viewed as inappropriate, ill-advised, or a sign of incompetence.