Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Separating Myth from Reality; Little Research Has Been Done on Performance Pay in Education, but Research in Other Fields May Shed Some Light on Whether Education Would Benefit from This Practice

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Separating Myth from Reality; Little Research Has Been Done on Performance Pay in Education, but Research in Other Fields May Shed Some Light on Whether Education Would Benefit from This Practice

Article excerpt

Can you break out of prison by using dental floss to cut through the bars? Can you trust the claims made by candidates in political debates? These and other popular beliefs are examined by such television shows as Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" and CNN's "Fact Check." Rather than simply accepting these claims, these programs dig deeper to separate fact from fiction. In much the same way, we can evaluate the popular beliefs and myths surrounding performance pay in K-12 education.

One of the assumptions behind proposals to make performance pay part of the compensation package for teachers is fairly simple: Teachers will be more motivated to do high-quality work if they know they're eligible to receive performance pay.

But are performance incentives really the proper and most effective way of motivating teachers? And are teachers and other employees really motivated to do better work because of the carrot of better pay?

Unfortunately, education research on performance pay is still in its infancy. A number of studies are under way, but only six causal studies have been completed--and all of those have been outside the United States (India, Israel, Kenya, and Mexico) and may not translate to the U.S. education system. Those studies suggest that performance pay can have small effects on short-term student outcomes, such as standardized test scores, especially under high-stakes conditions. But none of those studies examined long-term student learning or teacher outcomes, such as intrinsic motivation, job satisfaction, and burnout (Springer 2009).

So, to evaluate the myths surrounding performance pay, we turned to research from other fields, such as psychology and business. We used this research to "fact check" a number of commonly held myths about performance pay systems.

Myth #1: Performance pay systems improve performance.

Although proponents of performance pay often assume that this myth is a truism, research from management, finance, and economics provides a mixed picture of the effectiveness of performance pay in increasing productivity. An early review by Locke and his colleagues (1980) argued that individualized pay for performance systems increased individual productivity over other methods. However, more recent reviews--using larger samples and more sophisticated meta-analytic techniques--demonstrate that these effects are limited in several important ways. Monetary incentives increase performance quantity but not quality. Monetary incentives are effective in manufacturing, but not in service firms, and they work for simple but not complex tasks (for a review, see Gagne and Forest 2008).

In some countries, part of the problem is getting teachers to show up in school and be present in the classroom (Springer 2009), thus incentives to increase the quantity of teaching may be effective in those cases. However, in the United States, creating more effective teachers is more about the quality of what happens in the classroom. The tasks of teaching are by far not simple, and the skills required are more professional than industrial; thus, the results of this research suggest that performance pay may not be effective in improving teaching performance in the United States.

Myth #2: Performance pay systems enhance teacher motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to engage in a task for its own sake. Although there is a lack of consensus on the effects of rewards (such as money) on intrinsic motivation, the most consistent result across several meta-analyses from psychology is that expected rewards, which are received based on performing a task at a specific level, undermine intrinsic motivation on interesting tasks (for a review, see Deci, Koestner, and Ryan 1999). These ideas were subsequently captured by popular authors (Kohn 1993) and management consultants (Thomas 2009) who decry the use of rewards in nearly all circumstances, including school and work. …

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