American teachers, says the prevailing logic of merit pay, are underpaid. The toil away in overcrowded classrooms, teaching the unruly children of parents who are either uninvolved or over-involved. They carry the heavy burden of educating tomorrow's leaders, but we compensate them like second class citizens. The average middle school teacher in America makes less than the average librarian. Apparently care taking young minds is less valuable than care taking books.
Pay them more, the theory goes, and they will teach better. Districts across the country have been rolling out some form of pay for performance programs. In New York, an experiment is under way to pay teachers $125,000 (with up to $25,000 in bonuses). Private sector compensation schemes meet public sector education.
If merit pay, championed by the White House and education secretary Arne Duncan, is the enlightened path to leaving no child behind, it is unsupported by the evidence according to Dana Goldstein of the American Prospect, who also argues that it flies in the face of what we know about the link between compensation and performance.
"Forty years of psychological research," she writes "demonstrates that when someone is faced with a complex, creative task -- like teaching -- money is an ineffective motivational tool, and may even delay progress."
The idea, elaborated here by Daniel Pink, a former Al Gore speechwriter and author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, is that that creative, right-brain tasks, with few or ambiguous rules are best motivated intrinsically -- with feelings of self fulfillment or the satisfaction of achievement -- while routine, left-brain, mechanically-driven tasks are best motivated extrinsically -- via tangible incentives. A cash reward may speed up your assembly of anIkea bed, but it wont help in designing one.
Goldstein continues, "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."
But the goal of merit pay is not really to incentivize teachers to magically teach better, but rather to motivate some of the best among non teachers -- and college students-- to teach.
When it comes to teaching, we assume an inextricable link between passion and performance. Teachers, we believe, must have some innate passion to educate, let alone do it well. It seems oddly cold and calculating to think of entrusting the minds of our children to teachers motivated by anything else -- especially money. But we don't assume -- or require -- the same of individuals in other professions.
Wall Street, for example, routinely gets a disproportionately large share of top collegiate talent. That same herd of disinterested students, motivated largely by money, are often brilliantly effective at executing thex's and o's of modern finance. If money can expose some deep seeded talent for trading bonds, why cant it do the same for teaching.
Perhaps, what we have, is a debate more rooted in semantics. Rather than "merit pay" or "pay for performance" with its robotic connotations, the idea needs repackaging. Think Teach for America, the nearly 20 year old program that has used prestige as an incentive to teach in a way in which we have yet to use money.
Globally, countries with the best performing students, become that way largely by attracting the best people into teaching. Perhaps here in the U.S., we can use money in achieving that same goal.