Saturday, October 2, 2010

What motivates workers?

In the spring of 2009, I remember being infuriated by a Wall Street Journal article in which it was called “poetic justice” that the United Auto Workers would “finally have a direct stake in the survival and prosperity of General Motors and Chrysler.” The reporter was referring to the negotiated payments to the VEBA (voluntary employee beneficiary association) for UAW retiree health care being paid in stock rather than the agreed-upon cash, due to impending bankruptcy. I (not a UAW member nor a relative of one) found that opinion both stupid and insulting. In what way did auto workers not have a direct stake before? Their pay/pensions and benefits have always been dependent on the prosperity of the companies, and most of them held (now worthless) stock, as well — because they believe in and are proud of their work! When you are intimately involved in making tangible products that you, your friends, and your neighbors use every day, you are both literally and figuratively invested in their quality and in the success of the company. I think that personal stake is something not well understood by folks far removed from manufacturing. Pride is a powerful motivator.

What has this to do with education? It is now widely assumed that educators can be spurred to better performance by that universal motivational tool: money. The federal Race to the Top program of competitive grants specifically insists that teacher pay and job security be linked to performance — and that performance is to be measured largely by student performance on standardized tests. All over the country, teachers are being urged to give up tenure in favor of the possibility of much higher pay, should their charges’ test scores improve dramatically. The underlying rationale for this “pay for performance” is that teachers will thus be motivated to work harder at their jobs. This assumption, like the WSJ assumption that auto workers did not care about their companies or products, is also stupid and insulting. I cannot imagine that anyone goes into public school teaching for the money. The pay starts out low and, although it then doubles as experience and effectiveness increase, it also tops out at a relatively low ceiling given the level of responsibility and the number of degrees earned by most teachers.

No, teachers, I feel quite safe in generalizing, had less mercenary and more altruistic motives for going into their field. While it is possible that low pay can discourage and disaffect them, it does not logically follow that higher pay will energize and encourage them. Human motivation is simply not that one-dimensional. Once we get past a certain level of daily subsistence, we are much more satisfied by the intrinsic rewards of work — doing something well, making a real difference, growing in expertise, feeling useful and productive — than by how much we are paid for it. That is why so many materialistic Americans reach mid-life thinking “Is that all there is?” despite having reached their goals for acquiring all kinds of expensive stuff. The notion that more money will result in better teaching is insulting because it assumes teachers are both lazy and materialistic.

And now it has been proven wrong, as well.

The National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University (funded by a $10M grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education) employs “specialists in social and behavioral science, statistical analysis, economic theory, and policy analysis” to conduct “randomized field trials and evaluations of existing pay-for-performance programs” in public education. The report on one such study, the Project on Incentives in Teaching, or POINT, was released last week. This five-year study and analysis of a three-year randomized trial examined the effects on student outcomes of paying eligible Nashville teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 per year for increasing their students’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.

The bottom line? “We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.

This does not mean that teachers should not be paid more, but it should cause us to reconsider the simplistic pay-for-test-scores plans. If we really want to apply business principles to the improvement of public education, we should go back to W. Edwards Deming, who considered pay for performance one of the “Seven Deadly Diseases.” Instead, Deming suggests a continuous cycle of collaborative planning, implementation, evaluation of results, and adaptation of the plan in order to truly change an organization. And, imagine what being treated like professionals in this way would do for teacher morale and motivation!

May 2011 addition: you have got to see this animation summarizing Dan Pink’s Drive work on motivation and incentives!

1 comment :

  1. An interesting and well-reasoned post. As usual.

    You don't speak to the generational differences that motivate workers. The post-WWII generation was motivated by job security and a pension. The current generation of working professionals is motivated more by workplace flexibility and personal/professional satisfaction. For me - the generation between those two - money was the only motivation for working because by the time I retired from my (non-teaching) job in as a burnt-out bureaucrat in a public university, I was working for stupid clueless people.
    Not sure what that proves, except that I think each worker or teacher is much more complicated than surveys and test scores and government-funded research projects can grasp.