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Falcon's merit pay unlikely to produce better teachers

Under Falcon's proposed system, exceptional teachers would receive cash bonuses. (Flickr photo by 'rick')

This week, BC Liberal leadership candidate Kevin Falcon caused a stir in the education community by announcing that, should he become premier, he would support a merit-based pay system for British Columbia's teachers. Falcon said that he would explore ways to measure exceptional and innovative teaching practices, then bestow cash bonuses on those who use these methods to boost student performance.

To support his argument, Falcon appealed to studies showing that student performance is associated with high-quality teaching. Jesse Rothstein, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, confirmed this link in his October lecture at SFU. He said that a review of evidence suggests that "teacher quality is a very important part of the educational production function." For Rothstein and many others concerned with education policy, it's abundantly clear that we want good teachers in our public school classrooms.

But how are good teachers created? For example, how do you motivate a promising teacher to become even better?

Say for a moment you want your kid to become a better swimmer. What do you do? 

Option #1: Wave a $20 bill at him and say, "This is yours if you find a way to do that lap without drowning!"

Option #2: Enroll him in swimming lessons.

The only world in which option #1 makes sense is one where you believe your kid has a secret, untapped reserve of swimming talent and only needs enough motivation to bring it out.

It's not so different from the issue of merit pay for teachers. Despite Falcon's positive phrasing - creating "the opportunity to recognize and reward" great teaching - he implied that teachers could be better if they just tried a little harder.

The problem is that without access to the right tools and knowledge, motivation goes to waste. The teachers I know are hungry for information and support, but currently they don't have enough access to these things. It's like pushing a kid into the deep end, shouting, "Just try harder!" and watching him flail to stay afloat as you pocket your $20, shaking your head.

Moreover, the most up-to-date science on human motivation has found that extrinsic rewards, such as money in the proposed system of merit pay, often backfire. In Daniel Pink's 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he says that "carrots on sticks" are far from the best way to increase performance in a non-routine job. He says such extrinsic motivators can actually have a host of negative effects on performance, from crushing creativity to extinguishing the sort of intrinsic motivation that is the bread-and-butter of teaching. Long after the couple of thousand bonus dollars have been spent, and the tan from the Barbados vacation has faded, a teacher will be left with the 24 pairs of bright eyes staring up at her and counting on her to love her job.

According to Pink, intrinsic motivation - the kind that lasts - is fostered when individuals have a chance to experience purpose, autonomy and mastery in their work. What would it take for the BC government to give these things to teachers?

Given the nature of teaching, "purpose" seems like a freebie. "Autonomy" can theoretically be granted with some administrative tweaks (although that's easier said than done). But "mastery" can be encouraged only through access to high-quality professional development and mentoring. Nowhere in the equation is a cash bonus necessary.

Rather than investing time and money into developing a system of merit pay, Falcon would be further ahead to promise teachers more tools 
and knowledge, and then to grant them the autonomy to incorporate what they've learned into their practice.

Because the funny thing is, a lot of teachers actually do care about the kids they work with day after day. They do have the desire to constantly improve. But like all of us, they want to improve on their own terms. They also need access to the right resources. Invest in knowledge and loosen the reins, Mr. Falcon, and see what happens to student achievement.

See Jesse Rothstein's SFU lecture here.

Read a report on "ProComp", Denver's teacher merit pay system, here.

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