An idea with little merit
Education Minister Jeff Johnson has floated the idea of introducing merit pay for Albertan teachers, an idea which has come up more than once in times past. However, the timing is odd, given that school boards across the province are currently negotiating contracts.
There are several reasons why merit pay has little - well, merit. One reason is it’s very difficult to assess what constitutes “good teaching.” This can not be measured by just grade improvement, since that is only one measure of student success. As well, economist Steven D. Levitt’s research suggests that in U.S. states with high stakes testing, some teachers respond by bending rules or even outright cheating to inflate marks on tests.
The other reason has to do with the difference between extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Although private companies may use incentives like promotions or bonuses to motivate employees, these types of extrinsic motivators fundamentally don’t work on their own.
Instead, research suggests it’s more important to get people to like what they’re doing, to feel challenged and satisfied by it and to feel recognized for their efforts, than to use rewards and punishment. In one study, some children were given points for reading, with the chance to redeem the points for pizza. While these children did in fact read more than their peers, when the program and the pizza ended, their reading dropped off much more than their fellow students’ reading did. The intrinsic enjoyment of reading had been shadowed by the extrinsic motivator, and with that pizza motivator gone, the kids’ efforts plummeted.
Money – just like pizza – is certainly nice to have, but it can not be the driving motivation for people to do their work well. Good teachers will hopefully get their reward in engaged and appreciative students, not from increased pay.
Finally, given teacher unions, it’s very unlikely that such an idea would ever get off the ground, again raising the question, ‘Why even bring up merit pay?’ Johnson should be exploring ideas and engaging the public on how to improve education, but he should also weigh the political costs of making suggestions such as this that don’t make sense and that, even worse, may antagonize people.
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