“How reward power is exercised affects outcome. Compliance is most likely if the reward is something valued by the target person. Thus, it is essential to determine what rewards are valued, and a leader should not assume that it be the same for everyone.” Gary Yukl, Leadership in OrganizationsAs our political leaders and state level policy makers continue to try to find ways to “improve our K-12” systems of education, one persistent idea that just won’t go away is the idea of merit pay and punishment by accountability. They still remain faithful to the idea that somehow teachers will raise test scores if they are offered a big enough carrot or if their livelihoods are somehow placed in jeopardy enough to bring about a level of fear strong enough to give them the test scores they desire. After over a decade of “test-reward-and-punish” policies under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, you would think they would finally give up. Instead, money is still being poured into even more standards development and testing, in the hope that somehow education reform magic will happen. What these educational policymakers and politicians just don’t understand is performance pay and punishments are dead in the water before they are even implemented.
One of the reasons for the uselessness of merit pay is captured succinctly by Gary Yukl in his book, Leadership in Organizations. Rewards will only bring about compliance if those rewards are something valued by the "target person.” Don’t get me wrong, teachers and educators want to be paid fairly and be able to live comfortably, but educators know going into the the job that what they are doing is an endeavor much greater that a paycheck. Most are just not built to pursue the big carrots for their own sake. That is one thing that politicians and policymakers don’t get. Perhaps they are motivated by greed, but many of us are not.
Another problem with the carrot and stick approach to education reform is that many educators just don’t believe that test scores are a worthy goal to pursue. Most teachers who have been in the classroom see the tests for what they really are: a single measure focused on a small portion of learning given at a single point in time. That means the test can give s snapshot of only a sliver of learning, but it can’t be the ultimate goal of learning because so much of learning falls outside testing. Our current public education system is asking educators to believe that test scores are an important goal of learning, and many aren’t buying it, and never will.
As Yulk points out, “Even when the conditions are favorable for using rewards, they are more likely to result in compliance rather than commitment.” Rewards only get people to do what is required; they do not engage people’s hearts and minds totally in the goal of education. Under rewards, people aren’t committed to their jobs, the kids, or to the profession. Our current system of accountability and testing along with its reward and punish for test score performance will never work because at its heart, because teaching requires more than compliance; it requires dedication and commitment and no amount of money can purchase that.