As teacher merit pay spreads, one noted voice cries, ‘It doesn’t work’


Dan Pink, author of the best-seller ‘Drive.’ (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 15, 2012

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.”

* * *

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.


(Allie Ghaman/The Washington Post)

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.”

* * *

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.

But after a while, Pink began to question what he was doing. “Here I was, close to the epicenter,” he said. “But so much of it was about the game and so little about doing things. And I was lucky — I was working for Reich and Gore, and these are good guys, serious guys. But even then . . . I thought: Is that what I want to do with my life?”

He had written a few magazine articles, and enjoyed it — especially the liberation that came from writing solo, without the ritual of having a dozen other people chime in to debate word choices, as was routine in his speechwriting job.

In 1997, with backing from his wife, then a lawyer at the Justice Department, he quit his White House job and set out to write “Free Agent Nation,” a book about people who left traditional jobs to work for themselves.

Leaving the security of a paycheck “was scary,” he said, “but the alternative was scarier.” His wife, Jessica Lerner, quit her job a year later. With the security of her continued health insurance under COBRA, they traveled the country with their toddler daughter as he did the reporting for the book, published in 2001.

Sales were good enough that Pink realized he, too, could work for himself. He wrote the best-selling “A Whole New Mind” in 2006, about how creativity has become essential to success in the changing economy, followed by “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko,” a career guide in Japanese-comic-book format. “Drive” followed in 2009.

Pink is living a life built on the themes that run through his books: He enjoys great freedom to explore what interests him, he believes that his work serves a larger purpose, and he strives to master the subjects and the writing.

Beyond his books, Pink does a podcast known as “Office Hours” in which he interviews authors, academics and business leaders about work, life and other matters and takes calls from listeners. And he gives lectures roughly four times a month. A video of a Pink lecture based on “Drive” is among the 20 most viewed on the TED Talks Web site.

(Pink publishes his e-mail address in every book and answers every letter he gets. “It’s the reason I had 98 e-mails on Saturday,” he said.)

* * *

Merit pay for teachers has been discussed since at least the 1950s and tried in small ways here and there. But most efforts collapsed against resistance from unions and the failure to develop objective ways to measure teacher performance. In the vast majority of districts, teacher salaries are still based on seniority and level of education.

Rhee, who now advocates around the country for merit pay through her organization StudentsFirst, said critics such as Pink misunderstand merit pay. It’s not supposed to inspire a mediocre teacher to greatness — it’s designed to retain high achievers, she said. “It’s about the kind of culture you want to create, where excellence is rewarded,” Rhee said in a recent interview.

Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said merit pay will attract a different kind of educator to the classroom: someone who wants to be held accountable and rewarded for performance.

But Pink said that kind of thinking makes little sense. First, he said, even businesses have begun to question whether “if-then” reward systems benefit the company in the long term. Second, education is not a business, he said, despite the intention of some reformers armed with MBAs who want to bring a corporate mind-set to the classroom. “Do you want your kids taught by an intensely competitive person who’s motivated by money?” he asks.

Tiffany Johnson doesn’t spend a lot of time considering the intellectual debate over merit pay. Johnson, who teaches at Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast Washington, is among 476 teachers out of 3,600 in the District who pocketed a substantial bonus at the start of the school year. Her pay soared from $63,000 to $87,000 in September.

“You feel appreciated for all the hard work you put in,” said Johnson, who had considered applying for teaching jobs in Montgomery County, where a starting teacher is paid about $5,000 more than in the District. “This helps me to stay.”

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was seated next to Pink at a White House event a few months ago. She read “Drive” when it was published, but it didn’t shake her belief in the value of merit pay.

“A great teacher is not going to teach harder or better because there’s a bonus,” Henderson said in an interview. “But if they make a significant accomplishment, treating them the same way we treat the teacher who sent their kids backwards makes no sense. . . . This whole one-size-fits-all approach is so counter to me. There are very few occupations that have a lockstep pay schedule. . . .

“I’m in a situation where right now I have to change outcomes for kids. I don’t have the money to raise teachers’ salaries to $100,000 across the board. But I do have the money to reward my highest-performing teachers.”

Pink thinks there’s nothing wrong with paying teachers more. In fact, all teachers should earn more, he said, so they don’t abandon teaching for financial reasons.

“It’s not that money doesn’t matter,” Pink said. “It’s that the best use of money is to get people to stop thinking about money.”

In nearby Montgomery County, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr opposes merit pay. On a recent night, he featured Pink at his book club and attracted so many parents and teachers that a monitor had to be set up for the overflow crowd at the Barnes & Noble in downtown Bethesda.

Starr had fringed his copy of “Drive” with yellow Post-it notes and kept flipping it open to read aloud passages he found intriguing. The crowd laughed at Pink’s jokes, nodded in agreement and swarmed him for autographs when the event was over.

“I have luxuries that other superintendents don’t,” Starr said. “This isn’t a district that needs a turnaround. . . . But I think the only way to improve student achievement is to teach better. We don’t have a student learning problem. We have an adult learning problem. We have to learn to teach better.”

“And how do you create those conditions? How do you motivate people? Do you do it through merit pay? No, it doesn’t work. You do it by engaging them with teamwork and a purpose and a meaningful life.”

The national debate over merit pay is a distraction from the challenges faced by the American educational system, Pink said, days after the Rockville event. “Well-intentioned public officials want to do something, and they look at [merit pay] as a silver bullet. The real problem is poverty,” he said.

If politicians want to improve academic performance, they should “reduce teenage pregnancy, give excellent prenatal health care and provide universal preschool — and test scores will go up,” he said. “But that’s a lot harder to do, and a lot more expensive than merit pay.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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