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Shades of (Daniel) Pink: The Merit Pay Debate

In case you missed it, last week's Washington Post article on merit pay does a nice job of summing up the major rift between proponents and skeptics of a school reform effort that, according to the Post reporter, is "suddenly gaining traction."

Daniel Pink, author of the popular book about motivation, Drive, claims that merit pay doesn't improve teaching. "Rewards are very effective for some things—simple things, mechanical things," he said. "But for complicated jobs that require judgment and creativity [i.e., teaching], the evidence shows that it just doesn't work very well." In fact, extrinsic rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation, he argues. (I recall learning about this in a social psychology class—those receiving extrinsic rewards attribute their desire to complete a task to the reward, while those who do not receive extrinsic rewards convince themselves they simply want to complete the task.)

Former D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, a major advocate for merit pay, says the practice is meant to retain great teachers—not inspire mediocre ones. And Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, adds that it will attract people to the teaching profession who want to be held accountable.

It's notable that the two sides are entrenched based on very different assumptions about the purpose of merit pay. It seems a bit more like a misunderstanding than a true debate. Pink's point may be well-proven, that is, but if those implementing merit pay systems are doing so for the purpose of attracting and retaining more skilled teachers, then shouldn't the counterargument be based on whether or not those goals are accomplished?

Toward the end of the Post article, D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who replaced Rhee in 2010, makes a less scientific—and arguably more pragmatic—justification for differentiating pay. "I don't have the money to raise teachers' salaries to $100,000 across the board," Henderson said. "But I do have the money to reward my highest-performing teachers."

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