Will Merit-Pay Systems for Teachers Improve Students' Education?

A recently released study by Vanderbilt University on performance-based pay for teachers showed bonus pay alone was not enough to affect student test scores. So what now?
by | September 29, 2010

Chances are pretty high that you've heard all the buzz about performance-based pay. The premise seems pretty logical: the better you perform, the better you are paid. Low-performing workers will strive to do better and get better pay, or eventually be fired. The high-performing workers will receive more accreditation -- of the monetary persuasion. A classic positive-reinforcement system.

School districts across the nation are receiving federal funds to improve their students' education. The funds, however, come attached with at least one string. The U.S. Department of Education, amid objections from teachers' unions, is encouraging school districts to try out merit-pay systems. Many school districts are planning on -- or already -- implementing some sort of pay-for-performance system in hopes of attracting the highest quality teachers and raising student test scores.

Here's an interesting little wrench in those pay-for-performance gears: Last week, findings from a three-year Vanderbilt University study showed that bonus pay alone was not sufficient to raise student test scores. In some ways, this was an uppercut to the communal chin of performance-based pay supporters.

So, what works? How do you drive the country's educators to mold our children's minds into beautiful, standardized test-taking masterpieces? I tried to think back on my life and what drove me to do my best. I realized it boiled down to two things: fear and concern.

In regards to fear: All through elementary, middle and high school, report card days were days to dread. Many of my friends would be excited to go home and show their parents, as they would receive payments based on their performance -- something along the lines of $20 for each A, $10 for each B, etc. A classic positive-reinforcement system.

I, on the other hand, would stare at all the non-A's on my report card and dread the moment my mom would say, "Bring me your report card." My parents' punishment methods evolved in "age-appropriate" forms -- spanking (when I young) to mental humiliation (when I was a teen). A classic negative-reinforcement system. I never brought home a report card filled with A's, but I did well enough to fulfill my parents' end goal: acceptance into college (Go Badgers!).

Switching gears, I think I've done a decent amount of volunteer work in my quarter-century stint here on earth. Typically, I was motviated to volunteer because I was concerned about issues at hand. For example, some unfortunate people were hungry and lonely during the holidays, so I volunteered at a shelter to give those people warmth in the form of soup and conversation. It was more than how quickly I could pour out and distribute soup -- it was about keeping spirits high. It's more than just higher test scores -- it's about quality education.

Am I suggesting we turn teachers into volunteers and spank them if they perform poorly? No. But I am suggesting we take a closer look at all the different things that motivate us as human beings to perform well, aside from just financial incentives.

Daniel Pink, author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," gave an interesting talk on his book and some surprising findings behind what motivates people to churn out really good work. Check out this video of his talk, which is accompanied by some fun illustrations. The video runs a bit over 10 minutes, but it's a good watch.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from View