For Some Teachers, $4,000 Now Beats $8,000 Later
I have to admit I’m intrigued by a new approach to teacher merit pay, one that explores whether the fear of having to give back bonus money you already have in your pockets is a better motivator than the promise of good things to come.
There’s been little evidence that teachers’ performance bonuses have any meaningful effect on student achievement. But a new study out of Chicago took a brand-new tack, dividing 150 teachers into two groups. The first group received a $4,000 advance, with the understanding that if students didn’t do better than average on standardized tests, they would have to pay it back. If achievement did go up, teachers stood to earn as much as another $4,000. The second group of teachers was told that they could earn up to $8,000 in merit bonuses at the end of the academic year with sliding scale payouts based on student test scores.
Interestingly, the teachers whose students showed the strongest performance gains were those who had the threat of repaying a $4,000 advance looming over them.
In writing about the study for The Atlantic’s online business section, associate editor Jordan Weissmann described this an unkind – but potentially genius – approach to the issue, and I’d call that an astute assessment.
I’ll be interested to see whether the Chicago study gains traction. The odds of that happening are improved by the high-profile pedigree of the researchers who devised the study: Harvard professor and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Roland Fryer, University of Chicago professor and Freaknomics co-author Steven Levitt, economist John List (also of the University of Chicago), and University of California-San Diego management and strategy professor Sally Sadoff.
Not surprisingly, the premise of the study didn’t sit well with education historian Diane Ravitch, a vocal critic of such tactics. Teachers are not lab animals, and trying to motivate them by instilling fear is wrong by any measures, Ravitch argues. On her blog, she called the study’s premise “loathsome,” “inhumane,” and “unethical.” She also said it was “antithetical to the values of a democratic society” and “antithetical to decency.”
Over at the American Enterprise Institute, education research policy fellow Michael McShane responded to what he characterized as Ravitch’s “conniption fit,” noting that in the field of behavioral sciences “loss aversion” has been well documented. Rather than railing against it, “this is exactly the type of research that we should be conducting, taking widely understood phenomena from other disciplines and applying them to education to see how we can increase student achievement,” McShane wrote in a blog post. “They won’t all be winners, but should do more good than harm over time.”
There’s something to be said for the psychological element at work here. I can envision that it might be harder to give up something you already have, compared with working toward the more ethereal possibility of a future reward. But the larger question might be whether merit pay is at best an indirect approach to improving student achievement. Many students come to class with significant socioeconomic challenges that factor into how they perform academically. And those probably can’t be solved by dangling carrots — or yanking them back.
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