Performance-related pay won’t motivate teachers

Govebusters vs teacher pay reforms. Who will win? Rui Vieira/PA

This Easter Monday, members of the National Union of Teachers voted in favour of a motion for strike action this summer. The threat of industrial action reflects an ever deepening rift between teachers and Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, against a backdrop of unpopular reforms and name calling.

Among the most ostracised of these reforms is the dismantling of traditional experience-to-salary structures – to be replaced with performance-related-pay. Guidance on the changes was introduced in September 2013, with the first pay rises based on performance starting in September 2014. In defence of his reform, Gove argues a link between performance and pay will “make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job.”

Yet Gove, perhaps because he is an avid free marketeer, misses the point. Teachers are not bankers or stockbrokers (or Times editors). They are not seduced by the carrot of ever-increasing financial gain.

Financial gain, on its own, is a self-centred motivator and serves no purpose beyond the temporary gratification that money confers. Teaching, on the other hand, is a mutually rewarding occupation that serves the ongoing interests of both teachers and their students. By imposing economic sanctions on this precious relationship, we corrode the very meaning of teaching itself.

A bad idea

To understand why this is the case, it is important to understand how humans are motivated. We engage in certain activities not only for their tangible outcomes, but also for their implicit satisfaction. Harry Harlow, a primitive psychologist, demonstrated this over half a century ago when he observed that the satisfaction monkeys derived from mastering a maze task was so strong that they would even forgo food to do so.

This is where neoliberal ideology and human motivation begin to conflict. Motivation is not a commodity to be traded for the highest price. It originates from within and necessarily antagonises with any outside influence. Just ask teachers why they teach, they will tell you that they value the benefits and personal satisfaction that the job confers – it isn’t all about the money.

This, intrinsic motivation, is particularly important for teachers. It’s the motivational force that sustains their enjoyment in the face of external pressure and underpins their extra-curricular support for students. More than this, though, intrinsic motivation gives teachers impetus to engage in energetic and creative thought processes that enhance the quality of their teaching provision.

It won’t work on teachers. nist6dh, CC BY-SA

Research from other professions shows us that teachers who teach from a place of personal satisfaction are likely to be healthier, more satisfied, less inclined to burnout and, importantly, perform better than those who do not. Why, then, would we want to discourage teachers from harnessing their own motivational resources?

This is the most pernicious of Gove’s criticisms. He assumes that when self-interest is propelled upon people it would act in the same way markets do – by motivating. Yet, inconveniently, contemporary research supports the seminal work of Harlow and suggests that this ideology is only correct when tasks require little cognition, or are poorly paid in the first place.

When tasks require more than a small degree of cognitive activation, and pay is perceived as equitable relative to living costs, rewards are in fact demotivating. In a synthesis of 128 controlled experiments, consistent negative effects of rewards were reported on intrinsic motivation. These observations may not be intuitive to a society inculcated by economic discourse, but are in line with modern approaches to motivation which emphasise the salutogenic role of self-determination.

Impacts on students

And it isn’t only teachers that are harmed by performance-related pay. Children’s learning and development in school may also suffer.

It is well documented that when teachers feel pressured to produce certain outcomes the reaction is, typically, to pass along that pressure to their students in the form of control – to elicit short-term achievement. This may seem a somewhat controversial hypothesis, but it is supported by evidence.

Worryingly, there is also evidence to suggest children’s learning is not helped by teaching practises that emphasise pressure to achieve. In an exemplary American study, researchers had college students study science material with either the aim of teaching it to somebody else or with the expectation of being tested on it. Results revealed that those who learnt the material to teach, relative to those who learnt to take a test, demonstrated higher creative thought and better conceptual learning.

Yet it isn’t only children’s learning strategies that are undermined by pressure – their tendency to engage in school work is also weakened. Researchers in Israel, for instance, found that pressuring behaviours by teachers made children less likely to persist with a task in the face of adversity. Hence, pressure is a double edged sword that instigates short-term effort at the expense of perseverance.

Now, here’s the rub: attempting to commoditise motivation treads a dangerous path. It replaces the high-quality intrinsic motivation that teachers bring to the classroom with poorer quality extrinsic motives that, as we have seen, create conflict and pressure.

In this way, performance related pay for otherwise intrinsically motivated occupations, such as teaching, is an unnecessary and counterproductive initiative. It gambles on the utility of self-interest for improving standards, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. This isn’t a liberal conspiracy, Mr Gove, its a simple case of the evidence disagreeing with your deep-set ideology.