Carrots and sticks – not good enough even for donkeys?

In my last post I looked at student feedback and talked about institutional inertia in implementing new practice. Over the last couple of days I’ve come across blog posts that have led me to consider how institutions (in their widest sense) actively work against the improvement of teaching and the educational experience.

One post that came through my RSS feeds was ‘25 ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation‘. While an excellent article in itself it contained a video of the talk Daniel Pink gave to the RSA, and that’s what provided the seed for this blog post. I’d seen this video before but it was a while ago and I’d forgotten the details. Daniel talked about what motivates and drives human beings and some of the research that had been done. He described research where people were offered monetary rewards for various tasks and their performance was measured. The reward system worked as expected (higher pay produced better performance) provided that the task only involved mechanical or rote skills. Once the task needed any sort of thinking or cognitive input then a larger reward actually led to poorer performance. As Daniel states: “When a task gets more complicated, when it requires some conceptual creative thinking those types of motivator demonstrably don’t work.” He then goes on to discuss how for those types of task a combination of autonomy (self-direction), mastery (the desire to get better at something), and having a sense of higher purpose produces performance increases. Money is only relevant (in cognitive tasks) if people are paid sufficient so that they’re thinking more about the task and less about the reward. I’d argue that these three traits are a pretty good description of what drives the best teachers.

So how does this link to teaching? My daughter has recently passed her teaching degree, called the PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) here in the UK, and has just started her first full year of teaching. The UK government through the Department of Education has introduced new pay policies for teachers. The press release states that “evidence shows that improving the quality of teaching is essential to raising standards in schools.” No argument there, but I have grave doubts that any aspect of what’s been announced would actually improve ‘the quality of teaching’ within schools as a whole. There are three main elements listed in the press release for the new national pay framework. First, pay increases based on the length of service are stopped. I’d argue that rather than rewarding length of service these increases recognised increased experience in much the same way that a person with a number of years of experience could expect to start a job on a higher salary than someone without. Second, all pay progression is linked to performance based on annual appraisals. I don’t have an issue with performance monitoring or annual appraisals, provided that the process is transparent, fair, and not used as a tool to divide staff. Unfortunately, I’ve had personal experience where that was not the case. Thirdly, the new proposals scrap mandatory pay points, meaning that the pay scales remain for reference only “to guide career expectations“.

The press release then goes on to say: “It is up to each school to decide how to implement new pay arrangement for performance-related pay”, but there’s no mention of any extra funding to meet the additional salary costs (and if extra funds were available you can be sure they’d be shouting it from the rooftops). This means that funding the performance-related pay will have to come from elsewhere in the school budget. Schools are expected to do more with less, and the blame for any failure goes to those left to implement the policy (i.e. the school management) rather than those who set up an unworkable system in the first place.

Performance is assessed against the teachers’ standards framework and “if they meet all their objectives they might receive a pay rise” (my emphasis). So what happens if a majority of the teachers in a school meet (or exceed) their objectives? Do they all receive an increase, and if so, where does the money come from within a fixed budget? An analogy here is criterion and norm-referenced assessment. In criterion-referenced assessment theoretically the entire class could get the top grade provided their work met the standards that identified the top grade. In norm-referenced assessment only a certain percentage get the top grade, because what matters is not the work they produce, but how that work compares to their cohort. It’s the same for the teachers under these policies – there is no link between their performance and the reward they receive because there is no additional funding available. Even if financial regulations allow the headteacher some flexibility the largest budget item in educational institutions by a big margin is staff costs. In a previous institution I worked in staff costs accounted for around 70% of the total annual budget. A better approach would be to have had a chunk of money available to fund improved teacher performance in a similar way to the pupil premium, where schools are given additional funds to “support their disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between them and their peers.” They could even call it the ‘teacher premium’.

Looking at the politics of this, and with an eye to the creeping agenda of privatisation within all sectors of education in the UK, I see this more as an attack on collective pay agreements and giving school management a tool to reduce staff costs. Over time, the salary you would get as a teacher would become a lottery. How can you even call this a national pay framework if teachers doing the same job to the same standard with the same amount of experience could end up being paid different salaries within the same school? And what would that do to the collegiate, collaborative environment that enable educational institutions to increase their achievement through the synergy of their staff?

So, the government has introduced a ‘performance-related’ pay scheme that isn’t related to performance in any systematic way, is likely to reduce institutional effectiveness by setting up staff to compete against each other for limited resources, and actually contradicts the economic and psychological research that shows us that monetary reward as a motivator for creative and complex cognitive tasks doesn’t work.

What does work, as we saw earlier, is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Lack of autonomy in teaching in the UK is a frequent complaint. Mastery (getting better over time) is possible, but as I’ve just explored, doesn’t necessarily result in any extrinsic reward. It seems the Department of Education are relying on a sense of purpose to abdicate from their responsibility to reward and motivate teachers through effective and evidence-based policy. In effect, they’re using the old “it’s a vocation” excuse and hoping everything else will magically fall into place.

By coincidence and in contrast, I’ve recently started following a blog where an American teacher is blogging his experiences of teaching within the Finnish system. Finland is often held up as an example of excellence in teaching (including by the UK government), but the Finnish system is very different to the UK one. Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? put forward some interesting views when interviewed in The Altantic. In the UK ever more command and control management (and student testing) is put forward as the answer to teacher accountability. Sahlberg says “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In other words, accountability becomes more necessary (and more complicated to administer and measure) once you start to remove autonomy. At a school reunion two years ago, one of my former teachers said that they were glad to have retired because they said that the current system meant they “weren’t allowed to teach any more”.

Teachers and administrators in Finland are “are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility“. Teacher training institutions are highly selected, with a master’s degree the minimum qualification. There is also a designed lack of competition within the Finnish educational system, discussed in the same Atlantic article. Contrast this with the Education Secretary’s recent dismissal of those within education who disagreed with his curriculum reforms as ‘marxists’ and ‘the enemies of promise’.

Here’s an idea: if we really want to improve the quality of education by using performance-related pay how about we do a teaching version of group assessment by tying the reward to the performance of some group on a criterion referenced basis, i.e. if the group meets the criteria the group gets the reward. The group could be those that teach a particular year, a department, or even the entire school. This would reduce the negative effects of competition because the groups are no longer in conflict for a limited resource. It’s similar to profit-sharing schemes within business, which is useful for those sections of the political spectrum who see any system where individuals are not in direct cut-throat competition with each other as fundamentally wrong. Of course, it would require Government to actually fund it rather than just trot out soundbites during a photo-opportunity to a school.

To come full circle back to my starting point, institutional inertia can be a significant block to educational innovation and improvement, but it’s even worse when the systems imposed on us seem designed to actively impede us. In politics, we might hear the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’. Unfortunately, this appears to be evidence-free policy.