In today’s Washington Post is another story about “merit pay” for teachers. But this one, by national education correspondent Lyndsey Layton, spends some space on my own thoughts on the topic.

For those new to the issue, or coming to the Pink Blog from Tweets about the article, let me summarize my views as succinctly as I can:

1. Some rewards backfire. Fifty years of social science tells us that “if-then” rewards – that is, “If you do this, then you get that” – are great for simple, routine tasks and not so great for complicated, creative tasks. Since teaching is creative and complex rather than simple and algorithmic, tying teacher pay to student performance (especially on standardized tests) flies in the face of the broad evidence.

2. Contingent pay for teachers just isn’t effective. What’s more, the specific evidence – a cluster of recent studies that have examined “if-then” pay schemes in schools – has shown them to be failures. See, for instance, this piece of research by Vanderbilt University or this one by Harvard’s Roland Fryer or this study by Rand that prompted the New York City public schools to abandon its pay-for-performance plan.

3. Money is still important. The fact that “if-then” motivators often go awry doesn’t mean that rewards in general or money in particular are bad. Not at all. The research shows that money matters. It just matters in a slightly different way than we suspect. Paying people unfairly — say, when Jane makes less than June for the same work — is extremely demotivating. And, of course, low salaries can deter some people from pursuing certain professions. Therefore, the best use of money as a motivator, at least for complex work, is to compensate people fairly and to try to take the issue of money off the table.  That means paying healthy base salaries – and in the private sector, offering some non-gameable variable pay such as profit-sharing.

4. There’s a simpler solution. My own solution for the teacher pay issue, which I’ve voiced many times both in writing and in speeches, is to strike a bargain: Raise the base pay of teachers – and make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers. Not only is this approach more consistent with the evidence, it’s easier to implement and doesn’t require a new bureaucracy to administer. (To her credit, Michelle Rhee launched some efforts to move in this direction.)

5. We’ve got the wrong diagnosis. The notion that the central problem in American education is lack of teacher motivation is ludicrous. The vast majority of teachers in this country are some of the most hard-working, dedicated people you’ll ever meet – folks who work their butts off in difficult conditions for little recognition. Pay for performance is a weak prescription in part because it’s based on a faulty diagnosis.

6. What really ails us. The real problems, at least in my opinion, are twofold. First, the American education system itself, which is based on 19th century principles and structures, is woefully antiquated. Second, we’re ignoring the issue of poverty and the overwhelming evidence that, absent comprehensive and expensive interventions, socioeconomic status is what drives much of educational attainment and performance. (This is one thing I actually liked about No Child Left Behind. It held someone’s feet to the fire for schools that were criminally negligent in serving low-income kids.)

7. Teaching isn’t investment banking. I find it peculiar that we single out teachers for “if-then” pay when we wouldn’t consider it for other public servants. Should we pay police officers based on how many tickets they write or whether the crime rate in their district drops? How about compensating soldiers based on whether our borders have been attacked or how many of their colleagues have been injured or killed? Would legislators, who are behind much of the bonuses-for-test-scores push, ever agree to hinge their own pay on whether budget deficits rose or fell?

8. Turn down the heat, turn up the light. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the people on both sides of this issue are men and women with good intentions. Nearly everyone I’ve encountered is trying to do the right thing. Reasonable people can disagree about weighty matters. And most people are reasonable. The trouble is that much of our education policy — from how we finance it down to how we schedule buses — seems designed more for the convenience of adults than for the education of children. If we reckon with that unpleasant truth and have an honest conversation that places our kids at the center of our efforts, we can make a lot of progress.

34 Responses to “Eight brief points about “merit pay” for teachers”

  1. Adi Gaskell says:

    I particularly like your idea of rising basic salaries but making it easier to fire under performing teachers. Realistically though, what are the chances of this happening on a wide scale?

  2. Feng Ouyang says:

    I have read and really like your book “Drive”. However, I have some reservations about your application of those principles to the teacher’s pay issue. The problem is that the current “pay by seniority” is so ridiculous, even the imperfect “pay by performance” system would be a great improvement. More specifically to your points:

    4. This would be a good idea. However, if you subject many teachers to the threat of being fired, it would “backfire” as well, just as the threat of getting paid less.

    5. I’d be happy to know this is the really. Do you have statistics to back it up? “The vast majority of teachers in this country are some of the most hard-working, dedicated people you’ll ever meet ”

    6. I agree that poverty is important in education quality. However, I am not sure about your other reason: “the American education system itself, which is based on 19th century principles and structures, is woefully antiquated. ” Do you think American system is more antiquated than, say, the Chinese education system, which to some extent is based on the Confucius School 2500 years ago? How come the Chinese are turning out better students according to some measures?

    7. Actually, the Government employees that I know of are promoted based on performance. So their job performance do affect their pay check. I don’t know, though, the roles of unions in those agencies. If we pay the teachers based on their “outcome” of the current year, it is unreasonable, I agree. However, the teacher’s union insists on some “objective” measurement of job performance, instead of basing pay and promotion on the boss’s subjective evaluation, like other professions. So I don’t know what would be a better solution.

    8. I am afraid the reality is not so idealistic. Some parties in the debate base their positions not on the best interest of the students (or their interpretation of such), but on the interest of some other people or institutions (such as the teacher’s union or some political party). So I don’t think it’s just a matter of “honest conversation”. I do think, though, if more real stake holders such as parents and employers that involved, the debate would be healthier.

    Anyway, I really enjoy your books and your blog. Keep it up!

  3. M Kelley says:

    I especially like your point in #6. In all the cries that public education in US is failing, everyone wants to blame the teachers when the real motivation is resentment against unions and because most politicians want to ignore the REAL problems – the issue of poverty-stricken students and second language learners who flood US schools. Studies have shown that if you look at the top scoring education systems in the world, the US has a MUCH, MUCH higher poverty rate than those countries at the top (something like 2% poverty in Finland vs. over 20% in the US) let alone we serve a much higher second-language learner rate. When you adjust for our poverty rate alone, US student rank among the highest in the world. But no one wants to deal with poverty issues – it’s easier (and a useful political tool) to blame US teachers who are struggling to serve students who live in poverty and/or speak another language, all amidst increasing budget cuts, crowded classrooms, ridiculous “accountability” standards, and while carrying the “blame” for the struggles of our education system. As a teacher, I don’t want more pay. I just don’t want teachers to be demonized as the reason why US schools aren’t ranking first in the world when the top ranking schools do not face the same challenges we do. Teachers in the US system take on these challenges and the realities of our student population every day. We’d like a bit of respect and support for doing so instead of all the endless blame that is so popular these days. Merit pay is just another “blame game” being thrown at teachers. I love the idea that we let the politicians model this pay system for themselves first – since they think so highly of it and believe in its effectiveness!

  4. Thanks for hitting the nail on the head about the problems with teacher merit pay. I am especially concerned with using student test scores as measures of teacher performance. I am tired of the teaching profession getting slammed by uninformed, quick-fix policy makers and business leaders.

  5. Bobby Sassman says:

    It doesn’t address a big issue that influences all public education policy – Teacher Unions.

    • abby says:

      Show me a ineffective teacher and you will find a equally ineffective administrator. Many Principals and Superintendents blame the Unions,as you do, but in fact if they were doing their job in performing and documenting teacher evaluations they could successfully remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. But that means “work”, its much easier to blame the Unions.
      Teacher Unions do not have any interest in having bad teachers in the classroom.
      A matter of fact I know of many cases the Union has helped remove teachers who were not performing up to par.

      • Suz says:

        I agree with Abby. Our union has assisted our administrators in ridding the district of poor performing teachers during the entire 30 years I’ve taught. Seriously, who wants someone on their team who isn’t getting the job done? It causes everyone else to have to work harder. Administrators are responsible for collecting factual evidence about teachers. If the poor performing teacher is a buddy, or a relative of a board member, etc., the administrator will let things slide.

  6. Mary C says:

    While I agree with your assessment that there needs to be a way to weed out the bad teachers, I am confused with your assessment on salary. I am a creative writer, and I want to be compensated for my creative talents. Not bonus-wise, but in a good salary. That being said, if I excel in creative writing, and my equal is just average, I should be making more than my counterpart. While most art is not quite quantifiable, teaching is. Graduation rates. Student test performances, etc. To say that all creatives should get paid relatively the same is rewarding the mediocre and not those that excel at their craft. Sure, what I do is almost a hobby. I love my job. But I also want to get paid, and paid well. Don’t we all?

    • Molly S says:

      Well, no. It isn’t. If a teacher in a wealthy suburb gets 20 students who all have tutors, who all have a parent to stay home and help them understand their homework, who have all been read to every day of their lives, whose parents are college educated, well versed in the culture of education, and speak fluently the language of the dominant culture, that teacher is going to get 20 students who do well on the standardized test.

      I have taught children from wealthy and highly educated families and children from very poor families who struggle to put food in the lunchbox every day… guess who was harder to teach? Guess who did better on tests? Guess who was too traumatized, too unsupported, having too much trouble with English to excel?

      Standardized test scores and graduation rates do not give a clear picture of a teacher’s effectiveness.

  7. Conor Neill says:

    A participant on one of my courses told a story about New Orleans and the electrical supply.

    After Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, the electrical supply was totally destroyed. The power company brought in experts and worked on a plan to restore power. The best plan that the experts and management could come up with would take 4 to 6 months to restore electrical supply. This was too long for senior management.

    Senior management brought the field engineers into the football stadium and gave a speech. They told them that the best plan they could develop would take 4 months and this would be too long. They told the field staff of the importance of restoring power as soon as possible.

    The management finished by asking field engineers to “do what it takes in your area; for the next few weeks, do what it takes. We’ll trust you to take the decisions that need to be taken to get power restored.”

    12 days later, electrical supply was re-established to New Orleans.

    Finding the right balance between plan and trust is key to the future of education. We can’t go back to all teachers left to do whatever they want… but we can’t have a system that takes away all flexibility and passion from the job of teaching. You are on a great mission. I have a 5 year old daughter. Let’s see what we can do for her 😉

    • Bregasthian says:

      On the issue of conduct, a scoohl/college in a Scotland town (can’t remember)has devised rules for teachers about engaging with pupils in say online environments i.e. SNS and other sites outside office hours’so to speak, thus extending the teacher-pupil relationship outside scoohling hours’. If there are no ground rules this can leave it open to a host of issues, unfortuntely backfiring on the teacher’. We need to remember teachers’ are people too and they will use such online sites evidently.

  8. Ruth C says:

    The merit pay system attempts to give criteria to the system and establish a rubric for performance. Dan, your evaluation of this situation is excellent, and I think a lot of people, including teachers, don’t fully understand what the merit pay system intends to accomplish. You are right–raise the base pay and get rid of the bad teachers. Most teachers want to do a great job and this system offers them more evaluation and feedback so that they can do that. It is not really about giving a cookie for a right answer or good test results. It is about improving instruction for better outcomes. Your assertions in No. 6 are exactly the problem. Improving instruction through offering a variety of options for varied learning styles and differentiating curriculum enhance instruction. I repeat “improve instruction” as yes; this is a system that runs for the benefit of the adults instead of the children. By offering a system of pay for performance, the hope is to put the focus on instruction and back where it belongs on the children. Without high quality instruction, nothing else matters. It is not that parents aren’t important or the community is not important, it is that the children and their education are the most important.

    Thank you Dan for keeping this issue in the forefront. Daily blogs and tweets discuss education, its problems, and what should be done etc. The public needs to stand up and say it is time to change. There are schools out there that are doing it. Make sure yours is one of them.

  9. Krista Sly says:

    Your argument is well said. When you look at Denmark’s school reform you see that they did put teacher salary, preparation, and raising the profession at the heart of school reform.

    Merit pay is another band-aid with jargon, manuals, rubrics, and money needed to implement the program.

  10. Jess says:

    MaryC, your analogy isn’t very apt here. You are a creative writer, your results are based on your work alone. There is no middle person who has to take your work, understand it, remember it and put it on a test. A teacher has a classroom with 20-35 students and has to teach everyone regardless of whether they had breakfast or sleep or even a house and get them all to pass this same test to the standard or they are a failure. Not quite the same is it?

    The problem teacher’s have with assessment of supervisors is that oftentimes the people watching lessons do so once a year, or less. My principal has pretty much no idea about what happens in my classroom, they are doing paper work and meeting parents. In fact in my school it is normal for teacher to be berated for having high standards because it means a lower pass rate for students who are used to teachers who let them skate by each semester. So Miss Smith next door has a 95% pass rate and mine is 80%, they can use this “data” to get rid of me because my students are less successful. But if we looked closer we’d see Miss Smith gives extra credit for everything and I don’t because I think being able to meet the standards is the only credit they should get.

    There are some interesting pilot programs out there with teachers helping to rate one another. My old department head and deputy principal had to observe me a lot when I was going through qualifications their goal wasn’t to figure out if they should keep me or not, their job was to help me figure out what was working and what wasn’t. I wasn’t afraid to tell them the truth about what was happening and I wasn’t fearful that I would be fired because of their evaluation when I was given suggestions and they were always very up front that what works one time might not work the next time. Most people want to do a good job and have clear expectations. Moving the bar each semester or year with some new initiative that has no basis is a major reason that teacher’s don’t want to accept new initiatives, they are the same initiatives repackaged in a cycle. It takes new teacher’s a while to see this and realize the bandwagon’s they were happy to jump on their first few years are mostly a huge waste of time.

    Much of these ideas seem pulled from the RSA’s video The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which really hits home about giving people trust, a reasonable salary and freedom to try out new things in their classrooms or working as part of a self-chosen team.

  11. Jessica says:

    Jess: The RSA video you mention is an animation of a talk Dan gave spelling out the ideas in his book, DRIVE: THE SURPRISING TRUTH ABOUT WHAT MOTIVATES US. The voice you hear in the video is Dan’s.

  12. Leanne says:

    x + xy = 8, where x is individual performance, y is the performance of the containing system, xy being the interaction betwen the two (W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics). Solve an equation with 2 unknowns and you’ve just won yourself a Nobel Prize for math.

  13. Keno says:

    Dan Pink,

    Your suggestion of the “if-then” reward of legislatures that pass a balanced budget on time is interesting. What’s the downside there?

  14. Keno says:

    Dan Pink,

    Your suggestion of the “if-then” reward of legislatures that pass a balanced budget on time is interesting. Where’s the downside there?

  15. CaioBella says:

    When those outside of education need something to blame they seem to immediately go to teacher unions. As Pink has said, teaching is not investment banking. You would not fault the police, nurse or fire fighter union would you?

    Teacher unions are the only ones protecting teachers. Since the public blames every failing grade on a teacher and not where it belongs, the parent and the student, teachers need someone to speak up for them.

  16. Van says:

    Get rid of poorly performing teachers? Rolls off the tongue so easily, and really, who can disagree? Trouble is, how do you tell who is performing poorly? Can’t rely on once-a-year observation with subjective evaluation, and not really on student test scores. Tough dilemma. But what’s interesting is that very few commenters on this issue acknowledge this basic issue.

    • Molly S says:

      It’s a huge issue. I totally agree.

    • Van,
      You are so right. Few commenters on this issue realize this point because they’re not teachers and they fundamentally don’t get the measurement problem in teacher performance. Good teaching can’t be quantified, it is cumulatively observed, in truth, by supervisors, colleagues and students and, in line with Pink’s ideas, by the teacher himself. The community, in its collective response to an educator, says how good an educator is.

      What bothers me about Pink’s point here is that it seems to be so incongruent with the rest of his position on motivation. Doesn’t he advocate for not using classical conditioning (reward and punishment)? Wouldn’t making it easier to be gotten rid of enhance negative performance and return to the short-sighted view of motivation that he’s so against?

      Also, I love Daniel Pink’s ideas, the way he presents them, etc, I’ve known about the benefits and truth of intrinsic motivation since I was in college 15 years ago. In fact, an understanding of intrinsic motivation is a large part of what made me want to be a teacher. What disappoints me so much is that Daniel Pink says anything positive about Michele Rhee when he must’ve heard how teachers despise her tactics. How can anyone have a true sense of autonomy when they believe they can be fired randomly at any point for any or no reason (which is what Rhee was notorious for regarding both educators and administrators).

      Anyway, I think Pink is great and he’s just what the world needs but I hope he reads this and really considers how wrong he is about this point. Getting rid of underperformers first begs the definition of what performance is and, I thought, he was advocating for a paradigm shift which involves a redefinition of what performance is–also, isn’t it true that, if teachers are working under the classical motivation model, that their performance isn’t accurate to begin with?

  17. Leah Weston says:

    I teach at one of the “failing” NYC schools and enjoyed reading your article. I worked in the private sector before becoming a teacher and it was quite an eye-opener. I actually think NYC schools are fantastic, considering we I went to Catholic School. The amount of services and support that are provided are not really know to the public. NO one every talks about # 6 and I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve constantly said, “Bring in the teachers from the # 1 school in NYC (the Anderson School) and let’s see how those teachers do in my school. I doubt they could do a better job than the teachers in my school considering the vast difference in our student populations.

  18. I’d like to respond to a point made by Feng Ouyang. You mention comparisons to the Chinese system. First of all, I believe you are talking about social systems that are at different places in terms of economic development right now. The Chinese system emphasizes rote memorization and skills that are very suited to the industrial economy that has emerged there in recent decades. The American system, driven by government mandates and standards, emphasizes the same thing. Unfortunately, we have largely evolved into a post-industrial economic system, with manufacturing jobs being out-sourced to other countries (such as China) with a cheaper workforce. In their wake, the jobs and skills that have become more valuable emphasize innovative and creative problem-solving, not routine, repetitive tasks. If the U.S. is going to maintain its position as one of the most powerful sources of new and innovative ideas and products, the old standards need to be replaced with a greater emphasis on critical thinking, collaboration, innovation, and creativity. We can’t compete in the old system anymore, and we should be less concerned about comparisons based upon out-dated standards. Besides, even with all of our flaws, we know where China sends its best and brightest to receive secondary and university educations, don’t we?

  19. Lisa Schaa says:

    The real problem is getting rid of bad teachers. Here’s a novel idea. Make the administrators come out of their offices and actually run a paper trail, create “if-then” timelines for the poor teachers, and then, viola, you have grounds to terminate. But…this takes effort by the administration..

  20. Nick Klamecki says:

    It comes down to money. Pay them all more fixed salary (like 10k more per year). No pay for merit, or rewards. Make education an attractive profession. You will get the best and brightest and hardest working people who would have chosen the private sector. Teaching programs will have to tighten their standards due to increased applications, so the weaker teachers won’t show up to begin with.

    I’m not sure how this will affect the unions, but it may become a none issue. Why worry about tenure, when all the teachers are good and you wouldn’t want to replace them? Bill Gates said it right, you need the best quality teachers. They find a way to make the education the best, even with less materials in the classroom.

  21. Randy says:

    “The notion that the central problem in American education is lack of teacher motivation is ludicrous. ”

    Right…and I don’t even know why the discussion is ever about teachers. Having been a teacher (and student) I can attest that no (good) teacher can overcome the students lack of desire to learn and no (bad) teacher can stop a motivated student from learning.

    So the big problem seems to be to find ways to motivate the student.

  22. bfuruta says:

    One of the books Dan recommended in Drive was Carol Dweck’s Mindset. The good and bad teacher categories are typical of the fixed mindset. Rather, we should be looking at how teacher ability is developed. For one thing, our pre-service teacher training is weighted too heavily on theory. There isn’t enough practice with feedback and reflection. The National Council For Accreditation Of Teacher Education released a blue ribbon panel report called “Transforming Teacher Education Through Clinical Practice: A National Strategy to Prepare Effective Teachers” in November 2010. This is the direction we need to move.

    Second, professional development for in-service teachers is a joke. Veteran teacher and coach Anthony Cody wrote an article titled, “Building Teacher Accountability from the Ground Up,” from which I extract two essential guiding principles for professional development.

    The first is: “The single greatest thing we could do to improve schools, without huge expense, would be to support processes that engage teachers in working together to examine their practice and their students’ work, to reflect on what is working, and inquire into ways to improve.” Teacher collaboration allows for mutual coaching, and creates a culture of striving for continual improvement.

    The second is: “Teachers must be allowed to choose the model of professional development they will pursue. . . . This agency is critical to the enthusiasm and engagement teachers will feel, and this is the true root of accountability, which depends on our ownership of the work.” Autonomy while developing competence is essential for total engagement in complex tasks like teaching. A supportive structure that includes some kind of coaching and reflection is necessary for excellence.

    His article , which gives four proven models of professional development, is here:

    Carrie Leana from the University of Pittsburg, reports on her research in an article titled, “The Missing Link in School Reform.” In trying to improve American public schools, educators, policymakers, and philanthropists are overselling the role of the highly skilled individual teacher and undervaluing the benefits that come from teacher collaborations that strengthen skills, competence, and a school’s overall social capital.

  23. Jean Gustafson says:

    IT’S THE PARENTS!!! If the parent values an education and instills that in their student then the students are motivated to learn and not even poverty can stop them. (Proof is in poverty stricken 3rd world countries all over the world where kids are walking miles or through grave dangers to get to an education!) WE, the teachers, cannot overcome even with a dynamic and viable classroom and curriculum the message kids are getting at home that an education isn’t valuable.

    Sure, get rid of teachers that are standing in the way of the students. I am adequately paid and I love my job, so put the onus where it belongs, on the parents; give the parents of the highly successful students the merit pay! Include a copy of your student’s report card along with your income tax and receive a tax cut; how quick do you think those parents would suddenly value an education?

    • Sue D'Nem says:

      OK, Jean, I like your plan and think it would work…….. for middle and upper socioeconomic families…….. those who file tax returns and would reap the benefits of a “good student tax cut”.

      But how will you motivate lower socioeconomic families? If your family lives in poverty, they probably do not pay taxes and may or may not even file a return. So how do you motivate these families into valuing education?

      Years ago, welfare was “reformed”. One of the reforms was to tie benefits to school attendance. Good plan, right? Well…… sort of. You can’t teach kids who are not there. But if a child is only attending school because the parents want that welfare check, is that really encouraging education? Maybe we should take it one step further and tie welfare benefits to grades. It is not enough to attend school, but you have to make a B average. Would that encourage families in poverty to value education?

  24. mark says:

    On point four, raising wages will increase the attractiveness of of teaching but not necessarily increase the quality of teachers since our higher education system rewards extrinsic motivation more than intrinsic, which is a huge part of the draw of teaching.
    The other part making it easier to fire the, in my estimation, 5% of teachers who really don’t belong is easy to say but harder to implement with the structure of our hierarchical system, its not just a bureaucracy but a government bureaucracy. The bosses routinely try and get rid of creative and self-motivated subordinates, not the yes men and women, no matter how poor they perform. Teachers have the least acceptance of weak colleagues, we have to deal with the results. It would have to be a two way street, if you want to get rid of one of us, we can get rid of you. Until we get more administrators who don’t create a divisive environment. Sound like autonomy to choose ones team. The best public elementary school I ever heard of, S.F. Community School, had or has a rotating head teacher instead of a principal. Michelle Rhee turns my stomach, she is the epitome of everything you argue against in your book.

    I suggest Judith Ruth Harris’ book, No Two Alike. It would lead one to think that the results of your SAT – parent’s income chart has to do largely with peer groups, no parents at all. There is some good data, quoted in this book, showing that many aspects of upbringing have no discernible effect on school success.

  25. Susan L says:

    I’d be interested in knowing if the people pushing for teacher reform, merit pay, and judging the teacher on test scores have ever taught in a classroom!

  26. liam says:

    What if merit pay was based on more than just test scores? Number of student absences each day? Number of letters/articles students submit to local newspapers or journals? Performance feedback surveys from parents and students?

    I suspect that Key Performance Indicators and merit pay will not go away, so why not try to have a hand in designing reasonable indicators of teacher success?

    Research shows that individual teachers DO have an influence on learning, so perhaps the question is how can we measure their impact?

  27. N. J. Brown says:

    So: describe how you would create a new school system! i’d love to read everyone’s ideas!