Is Merit Pay Demoralizing Teachers?

I’ve been listening to Drive, by Daniel Pink while I run.  I started out listening to it to find out how I can better motivate my students.  His book is very interesting – plenty of scientific studies to back up his statements.  However, while the information can help me motivate my students, I started realizing it also speaks to what is happening in education today.

You can see Daniel Pink’s The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us here:

Here in Michigan, the legislature has decided that schools should follow a business model.  Toward that end, they have imposed certain rules on educators and districts.  The idea that my classroom is a factory, and if I simply do X, Y and Z in the right order, I will create a perfect learning machine seems to be the order of the day.   This is not a new idea – schools were originally designed, during the industrial revolution, to generate workers for the factories.  The schedule, the rows of desks, the idea of putting students in grades according to their ages, all date back to those days.

However, now the legislature has attempted to impose a new business idea onto schools: merit pay.  Each district was tasked with figuring out both how to find money for merit pay in the budget and how to award that merit pay.

My district set out guidelines and handed them out last fall.  They are well meaning and hope to get at what makes a good teacher.  However, according to Daniel Pink, this will do exactly the opposite.

If I understand his book correctly, offering an “if, then” reward to teachers for their art will actually cause them to do less.  The extrinsic/intrinsic motivation question is one that is being looked at more seriously.

According to Pink, by offering these rewards, those “good teachers” will now see what they were doing for enjoyment as work.  This will cause them to put less time into it and want to do less of it in the future.

Looking at the list of merit pay options in my district has made me feel like it’s not worth it.  In order to gain the merit pay, I have to reach a certain level before any of it kicks in.  I’m not one to be willing to jump through hoops and the amount of money being offered feels less than worth the effort.

I plan to continue doing what I know to be best for my students, because that is what I do.  I will continue to work for hours on the weekends, come in early, stay late, and think about my students while I’m grocery shopping, running, cleaning my house, driving to and from school, and so on.  I love my job and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

But shouldn’t the powers that be consider the science behind what they are doing?


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