Admin Continues Merit Pay Push. What Does Research Say?

One of the major developments in education policy this year has been the Obama administration's continued, focused attention on the issue of merit pay, despite a lack of strong evidence linking such programs to increased student achievement. On Sunday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appeared on "Face the Nation" and reiterated this agenda.

So it's worthwhile to take a look at what social science has to tell us about merit pay. Consider this TED talk on career motivation from Dan Pink, a former Al Gore speechwriter who is now a business journalist. If you can get past the MBA lingo, there's a lot here that is really consequential for education policy. Forty years of psychological research demonstrates that when someone is faced with a complex, creative task -- like teaching -- money is an ineffective motivational tool, and may even delay progress. Professionals engaged in creative work are more likely to be motivated by autonomy, and by the feeling that they are part of a larger, socially important enterprise.

As Pink mentions, though, one key to professional motivation is making sure everyone is paid fairly at the outset, thus getting the issue of compensation "off the table." That suggests paying teachers more earlier on in their careers, instead of back-loading the reward system, as many current teacher contracts do.

This jibes with the latest findings from one of my favorite education researchers, Cornell University labor economist C. Kirabo Jackson. After looking at North Carolina schoolchildren for 11 years, Jackson found that students' test scores improved when a high quality teacher taught in their grade-level -- even if they were not themselves in that teacher's class. Why? The positive impact comes not because teachers are competing with another for merit pay rewards, but because they are working alongside more competent colleagues, who are improving their skills.

“If it’s true that teachers are learning from their peers, and the effects are not small, then we want to make sure that any incentive system we put in place is going to be fostering that and not preventing it,” Jackson told Education Week. “If you give the reward at the individual level, all of a sudden my peers are no longer my colleagues—they’re my competitors. If you give it at the school level, then you’re going to foster feelings of team membership, and that increases the incentive to work together and help each other out.”

--Dana Goldstein

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