Money as Motivator (We Haven’t Learned Yet)

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/freedigitalphotos. net

I don’t think that I am the most well-informed of people (I’m lucky if I have an idea of what the weather looks to be like on any given day). I certainly don’t have a staff to keep me up to date on the latest intel on any given subject (though my son will obligingly point out my lack of knowledge in any particular field where I come up short). So it distresses me when I find out that I seem to be better informed than those who have been chosen to dispense our money in what I had hoped would be the most efficacious ways.

Case in point: a little less than a week ago, I discussed how to motivate and demotivate people, in the aptly named Motivation vs. Demotivation. This was not something that I came up with out of my own warped idea of how things work; this was based on research. Research that is not merely published in some arcane journal, no, this research is readily available to anyone who has access to the internet and YouTube. This research strongly suggested that money as motivator only works if the task is tedious. That same money is actually counter-productive to creative insight.

In the November 24 – 30, 2012, issue of The Economist, a publication that I (had) thought was filled with well-researched, up-to-date information, I see the following article:

Bonus Time

On November 14 members of the Newark Teachers’ union approved…a new agreement…It introduces, for the first time in New Jersey, bonus pay. Teachers can now earn up to $12,000 in annual bonuses: $5,000 for achieving good results, $up to $5,000 for working in poorly performing schools, and up to $2,500 for teaching a hard-to-staff subject….Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, and Joseph Del Grosso, the head of Newark’s teacher’s union, both agree that Newark’s contract could serve as a model for other school districts.

I certainly hope not. There is a bright spot, here, but not for the right reasons. The article goes on to say,

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest union, which is not affiliated with Newark’s, is adamantly opposed to bonus pay…[because] not every district has the funds Newark has.

I guess the right result, even for the wrong reasons, has some merit. And let’s not learn anything from past experience:

[Newark is not] the only district to introduce merit pay. New York experimented for a few years with schoolwide, rather than individual, performance bonuses, but abandoned the idea in 2011…Bonus pay began in 2010 in Washington, DC…but…the District has yet to improve its worryingly high teacher-turnover rate.

Another ray of hope, quickly dashed:

Performance-based pay is still controversial…Branden Rippey, a history teacher in Newark, worries that the idea…will ultimately undermine the union.

Oh, well. We’ll see where this takes us:

Mr. Christie…declared that the day when the union ratified merit pay…was “by far…the most gratifying day of my governorship.”

The reason that Newark is able to incentivize this way is that:

Two years ago, thanks to Cory Booker, Newark’s impressive mayor,  Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s billionaire founder, donated $100m to help improve Newark’s schools.

Washington, D.C. also “gets useful extra money from private donors”. I think that the interesting experiment would be to allow the private donors to attach strings to their donations. Let the funders perform the experiment. Grant them the power to make the rules. I’d like to see how the schools perform under the strictures normally only imposed on private industry.

There are those who are horrified at the thought of running a government institution like a private business-for-profit, but I can’t see that the results could be any worse. After all, why are the schools under-performing in the first place? Why is there such high teacher turnover? Why are there schools and subjects that are hard to staff?

The government does not seem to be doing a very good job of allocating resources, for whatever reason. If Mark Zuckerberg has a few extra hundred million lying around fallow, (and somehow he had the wherewithal to achieve what the entire government of Newark has been unable to accomplish) and he wants to give school improvement a go, where’s the harm in allowing him to set the goals, and setting the means for achieving those goals?

After all, it is the Mark Zuckerbergs who are the end users of the products of the school system. Shouldn’t they have a say in how their future employees are educated? Aren’t they the ones with the intimate knowledge of what skills and knowledge will be most useful in the workplace? Don’t they have some idea of the best way to incentivize their workers to get the best product out of them?

We need to decide that, either the school system is the place to prepare the next generations to meet the challenges they will face as they progress through their years of earning a living and providing for themselves and their families, or that schools are merely way-stations, providing not much more than babysitting services, and that the real education takes places outside their hallowed halls. We can’t have it both ways, and it’s a shame that people like Mark Zuckerberg get suckered into funding the status quo.


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1 Comment

Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics

One response to “Money as Motivator (We Haven’t Learned Yet)

  1. Right now… and for the last 30 years or so, I’d say they’ve been babysitters. They have greatly helped instill the entitlement society attitude in many of the young people today… Good post!

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