Wall Street Can Keep Their Merit Pay: We Don’t Want It

As many in the field of education have known for decades, rewards and punishments as incentives for performance have been discredited. Bringing it to the public schools is just another step towards the wrong-headed corporatization of public education. Despite Obama’s endorsement of merit pay for teachers, they have wisely rejected the idea through their unions. We should throw our support behind them too, and here’s why. To summarize a book published in 2000, Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn explains why rewards are bad for kids; they foster selfishness and diminish the desire to learn for the sake learning, they encourage superficial compliance. Rewards create jealousy and resentment and operate via bribes and coercion.  Rewards are bad for teachers too. Kohn surveyed hundreds of studies showing that money, grades and other such external motivators actually cause people to do inferior work.

In a recent opinion piece in Education Week,  http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/22/04gabor.h30.html , Why Pay Incentives Are Destined to Fail, Andrea Gabor cited research on how merit pay is a long-term disincentive for all kinds work.  In fact, it’s even bad for corporations. It gets everyone thinking about what is good for himself or herself and leads to forgetting about the goals of the organization. It incentivizes short-term thinking and discourages long-term thinking.

Diane Ravitch wrote about this topic in a post about merit pay for teachers in a blog called Bridging Differences. In it, she cites Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.   He explains why money is not as good a motivator as a sense of purpose. Ariely is an economist of human behavior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he has demonstrated again and again that people will work harder for idealistic reasons than for a promise of money. He warns of the danger of shifting education policy from “social norms” to “market norms.” Merit pay actually has the effect of subverting and damaging a school’s sense of purpose behind a veneer of promoting excellence and individual achievement.

An example of what this looks like in the real world is useful. At my college, faculty were recently awarded merit pay for service to the institution, research, and teaching performance (as determined by standardized student evaluations) despite a previous vote by the faculty to abandon the practice. The arrival of the merit letters in people’s mailboxes, each one confidential as to the amount,  set off a firestorm of on-line debate about the merits of merit pay. The philosophical discussion quickly devolved into suspicion, resentment, and the worst kind of self-aggrandizement, ” I deserved more than that other guy!” Finally, outright insults were exchanged the dialogue was silenced. I believe that this reaction doesn’t reflect badly on my particular institution or the individuals who inhabit it. I believe that it simply demonstrates what research has shown; community suffers when financial incentives are introduced. 

We have heard so many times from the popular media and from our elected officials that our K-12 schools and now that our schools of education are failing. You would think that nurturing teachers’ sense of collective purpose, rather than demoralizing individual teachers by pitting them against each other,  would make practical, if not ethical, sense.



About Betsy Bloom

Betsy is an Associate Professor of Education at Hartwick College in Oneonta NY. She is also a parent of two, a nine year veteran middle school social studies teacher and the current president of the NYS Foundations of Education Association, an organization dedicated to achieving social justice through public education.
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