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Sanctions v. Incentives: False Choice for Teachers?

It is great that CEA has asked teachers why they chose to teach.  It is an important question to ask, particularly given the shroud of cynicism surrounding the profession going back to the release of A Nation at Risk, and reaching a high point in the first term of George Bush. Teachers need to share their stories to put a face back on our profession.

These are big questions. Why do people choose to teach? What are the circumstances that cause them to stay in teaching? And particularly pertinent to the current engine of reform – increasing teacher effectiveness – what motivates teachers to improve?

NCLB was, and continues to be, the “stick without the carrot” approach to motivating a workforce. Now we are embarking on what may well prove to be an excessive reliance on the “carrot,” particularly if the pay for performance crowd prevails.

In preparation for this next era of federal intrusion, we ought to be asking the next question: “What keeps you in teaching?” Not that we haven’t asked before: we have. If James Carville were writing this he’d probably say, “It’s the working conditions STUPID.”  And I’m not talking simply about “wages, hours, and conditions of employment.”  Rather, in addition to these, that complex amalgam of conditions  which enhance a teacher’s ability to become increasingly more effective. You know what I am talking about.

The merit pay narrative relies on a powerful mythology about how workers in all other sectors of the economy are paid and what motivates  them to perform.  Recent (and also not so recent) research debunks these myths.

The latest edition of Harvard Business Review offers 10 Breakthrough Ideas for 2010.  The first breakthrough idea is about motivation:  What Really Motivates Workers: Understanding the Power of Progress.  Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer “reveal what their research shows is the true key to employee motivation.” Among the findings from their analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries by knowledge workers who made daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, progress in one’s work – even incremental progress – is most frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation. The authors further indicate that “The key to motivation doesn’t depend on elaborate incentive systems. In fact, the people in our study rarely mentioned  incentives in their diaries.”

Another interesting finding that has some resonance for me is that those who manage these workers, when asked what they thought most powerfully motivated their employees, got it wrong.

Ask leaders what they think makes employees enthusiastic about work, and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms. In a recent survey we invited more than 600 managers from dozens of companies to rank the impact on employee motivation and emotions of five workplace factors commonly considered significant: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. “Recognition for good work (either public or private)” came out number one.

In the study, the knowledge workers ranked recognition low among the factors motivating their performance. Wait a minute, didn’t President Obama and Secretary Duncan recently say that “recognizing and rewarding teachers” will be a major driver in their proposal to revamp ESEA?  In fact, they have proposed a whopping quadrupling of the monies in the Teacher Incentive Fund. Could they possibly be barking up the wrong tree in the quest to improve teacher effectiveness?  It wouldn’t be the first time.

Consider the notion of progress. What has been the biggest criticism of Adequate Yearly Progress? The goal keeps moving – making the achievement of progress increasingly difficult until it reaches a point of impossibility. Is it any wonder that gradually, over the last decade, teachers find themselves in an existential vacuum? Anthony Mullen, one of the more articulate and thoughtful National Teachers of the Year, and also a CEA member, alluded to this recently in his blog Road Diaries (see the posting Teacher Tales).

Here’s one more recommendation as you think about what it is that motivates teachers and if we are out of line with the worldview of our brothers and sisters in the private sector. Check out the recent work of Daniel Pink, who recently published a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motives Us.”  As Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “Pink cites a dizzying number of studies revealing that carrot and stick can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.”

Below watch Dan Pink explaining some of his ideas on motivation in an interesting and entertaining presentation from

One Comment
  1. Guy Semon #

    Stamford Public School’s (CT) educational management claims to be making decisions about the district’s direction based on “research-based instruction”, some of which is mandated by the NCLB. This is a good strategy when the research employed has demonstrated reliability / fidelity to help all students achieve expected levels of performance and comprehension. [It would become a wonderful strategy if teachers received the needed training in a timely and consistent manner.]

    Decisions in education made on solid science-based research are always preferable to those made for political or quick monetary gains. Unfortunately Stamford Public School’s (CT) management made a decision to bring in a program that speaks directly to Mr.Murphy’s and Mr. Pink’s points.

    Our district’s leaders felt it necessary to force into Westhill H.S. the incentive driven Project Opening Doors, a program that rewards “successful” students and teachers with money .

    “Project Opening Doors is a partnership between the public and private sectors that seeks to increase Connecticut students’ participation in Advanced Placement courses and better ensure their success in college. This initiative, which focuses on underrepresented student populations, involves representatives from education, government and business. To date, nine schools are participating. “

    The training teachers received for instructing this program was excellent and timely by all accounts. The Stamford Education Association (SEA), the union representing the teachers, had no problem with the program and asked that the Project Opening Doors program be initiated without incentives. The SEA cited past and present science-based research that demonstrates incentives don’t work. It was a no go for the business people paying out the incentives, and a no go for our school district’s leadership that doesn’t like the SEA’s positions on most educational issues . Incentives, the business / district leadership people said, had to be part of the program or Project Opening Doors would not be in the district.

    I don’t know if the Stamford Public School’s (CT) bosses made their decision to force this program into the school district with the incentive attached believing smooth talking business people who might be ignorant of the science-based research on incentives or not. Was it political, or for quick money? I don’t know that either. What I do know is that another high school in the Stamford District, the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering (AITE), has allowed all students to take AP courses, and have achieved successful results without a special incentive program.

    February 23, 2010

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