Dan Pink, author of the best-seller Drive. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON…)
Merit pay for teachers, an idea kicked around for decades, is suddenly gaining traction.
Fervently promoted by Michelle A. Rhee when she was chancellor of the District’s public schools, the concept is picking up steam from a growing cadre of politicians who think one way to improve the country’s troubled schools is to give fat bonuses to good teachers.
The Obama administration has encouraged states to embrace merit pay, highlighting it as one step that states could take to compete for more than $4 billion in federal funds through the Race to the Top program. Indiana and Florida passed legislation that requires merit pay for teachers; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) announced a few weeks ago that he wants the same.
The most recent convert: New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I). “This is an idea whose time has come,” Bloomberg declared at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting last month. “I’m confident that if the teachers are allowed to decide the matter for themselves, they’ll support it in New York City just the way they did here in Washington, D.C.”
What if they’re all wrong?
Meet Daniel Pink, author of the 2009 bestseller “Drive.” He’s a former White House speechwriter, a student of social science, a highly sought-after lecturer and an influential voice when it comes to what motivates Americans in the workplace.
What does he think of merit pay for teachers?
“It doesn’t work.”
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Pink, 47, is holding forth from his writer’s studio in Cleveland Park, a converted garage that sits behind his six-bedroom house. Here, surrounded by a wall of books dotted with knickknacks made by his three children, he pads around in stocking feet, a living testimonial to his work.
“Rewards are very effective for some things — simple things, mechanical things,” he explains. “But for complicated jobs that require judgment and creativity, the evidence shows that it just doesn’t work very well.” Teaching, of course, is one of those jobs.
The impetus for his investigation of what drives us came in an e-mail from a reader, who wanted to know how to motivate his employees. Pink got knee-deep in research on the subject and was surprised to learn that offering a reward to entice someone to perform complex tasks often does not have the desired effect and can even make that person perform less well.
He was struck by a 1973 study by psychologists Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett that illustrates this clearly. Watching a preschool class, the researchers identified the children who most enjoyed drawing. They divided those children into three groups. The first group was shown an elaborate “Good Player” certificate, and the children were asked whether they wanted to draw to receive the certificate. The second group was asked whether they wanted to draw and, if they did, were given the unexpected reward of a “Good Player” certificate afterward. The third group was asked whether they wanted to draw but was neither promised an award at the beginning nor surprised with one at the end.
Two weeks later, the researchers observed that the children in the second and third groups — who had either been given an unexpected award or no award at all — drew with as much enthusiasm as they had before the experiment. But the children who had been offered the reward showed less interest and spent less time drawing.
Other scientists replicated these findings through different experiments, proving the effect with not just children but adults, as well.
In 2010, the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University published what it termed the first scientifically rigorous study of merit pay for teachers. Researchers found that teachers in the Nashville public schools who were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved student scores on standardized tests made no greater gains than teachers who were not offered merit pay.
Tangible, extrinsic rewards can dampen intrinsic motivation, Pink said, noting that these findings have been repeated in dozens of experiments over the decades. “The science on this is robust,” he said. “And it’s also among the most ignored.”
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What does work?
Pink said research shows that people who hold jobs that require creativity and sophisticated problem-solving perform best when they have autonomy, an opportunity to master something and a sense of purpose.
He could have been talking about himself.
Like legions of others, Pink came to Washington for the politics. Fresh out of Yale Law School, he worked on campaigns and fell into speechwriting.
“I could type fast and write reasonably well,” said Pink, who first worked in the Clinton administration, initially as an aide to then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich and then-Vice President Al Gore, becoming his chief speechwriter in 1995.
The pace was furious, the setting glamorous.