Beyond the Salary Carrot

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Members of an education commission appointed by the governor of Iowa ruminated for months over how to improve the schools before unveiling last fall a widely embraced but unfounded recommendation: Use higher salaries as a carrot for better teaching. Certainly Iowa is not alone. The popularity of differential pay schemes to cure educational ills is one of the few constants in school reform packages either under consideration or already being implemented in 32 states across the country.

While education union leaders and business-minded reformers haggle over whether merit pay is to schooling what penicillin was to septicemia, very little attention has been paid to research that reveals just what it is that motivates good teachers. Over the last three decades, ample research on motivation has consistently yielded this result: Teachers rank intrinsic rewards ahead of extrinsic monetary prizes when it comes to what inspires them to do a good job. This does not discount the value of increased cash flow to schools to bring about change and to motivate teachers. Indeed, money can make the difference between mediocrity and burnout or exemplary teaching performance. The issue is how public investment in schools is to be used.

The research evidence suggests that funds intended for recognizing outstanding teachers (and for inspiring others to strive for excellence) would be better spent by helping dedicated teachers dismantle the barriers to achieving intrinsic rewards. When the accumulated evidence identifies motivational factors, such as the ability to make a difference in students' lives and the knowledge of having helped children grow, as ranking ahead of higher salary, public dollars should go toward enhancing the likelihood that all teachers will experience these intrinsic rewards. School improvement is at the top of the agenda for legislators in Iowa, as it is across the nation. Wide support for education reform presents a golden opportunity to enhance the work environment for teachers who want to do the best job they can, but teacher enhancement will not come from selective pay raises and bonuses.

Motivational analyst Frederick Herzberg has labeled teacher pay a "satisfier" but not a motivator--an important distinction. Low salary can lead to dissatisfaction among teachers, but merit-based pay and bonuses are not a source of greater motivation for good educators. Rather, job motivation among teachers relates directly to intrinsic matters: recognition, responsibility, and achievement of goals linked to the work itself. A 1994 study by the National Center for Education Statistics identified a number of impediments to teachers' goal attainment, chief among them the issue of large class size. The single most important action schools can take, therefore, on behalf of a cash-backed public mandate to improve schooling, would be to reduce the student-teacher ratio in classrooms. Not only would this improve teacher motivation by increasing the likelihood of intrinsic rewards, but the benefits for children in smaller classes would be dramatic as well.

When the number of students in a class is kept below a manageable 15, teachers are more likely to experiment with instructional strategies that emphasize active investigation and problem-solving. They are more likely to communicate regularly with parents to involve families in their children's educations. There are more opportunities for individual attention where teachers can identify each student's strengths and weaknesses. In short, teachers can be more effective at meeting the goals that attracted (and retain) them as educators.

Students benefit by smaller class size in terms of higher test scores, more participation in class activities, and improved behavior. The benefits have proven to be particularly pronounced for minority students and children of low socioeconomic status.

Exemplary teachers can do an even better job with fewer students in each class. Anyone who has hosted a birthday party for a few 8-year-olds can empathize with elementary teachers, who corral five times that many kids for four times the duration, day after day. Dropping the student-teacher ratio in classrooms should be priority one for any attempt at school improvement.

Numerous research studies have arrived at the same conclusion: Enhanced pay packages may attract more and better teaching candidates, but such measures have minimal effect on the teaching behaviors of those already practicing. The reason appears to be that schools are staffed by the sorts of people who willingly entered a field where they knew they would make 30 percent less than their counterparts in business or industry. Obviously, something besides the allure of money motivates top teachers. The research supports the notion that what matters most to exemplary teachers is that they reach their goal of doing a good job.

The responsible use of public funds intended to improve teaching dictates that money earmarked for reform be used to help teachers reap the rewards that come from good teaching.

Jeffrey Weld is an assistant professor of science education in the school of curriculum and educational leadership at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. He completed his doctorate at the University of Iowa earlier this year.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Page 33

Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Beyond the Salary Carrot
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