Anyone who is involved in establishing pay-for-performance compensation models for teachers and principals should spend a little time in advance reading up on Dan Ariely (The Upside of Irrationality), Daniel Pink (Drive) and other behavioral economists before embarking on a pay system based on the conventional wisdom about what motivates people. Unfortunately, most people, including several prominent superintendents, believe that money—in the form of better pay and performance bonuses—is the key to attracting higher quality teachers to the profession and motivating them to perform better.

I do believe that higher pay would attract more people to teach, though the relatively low pay for teachers compared to other professions is probably not as big a barrier to a better teacher talent pool than the filter of requiring a degree from a teachers college. (But that’s a topic for another blog.) Yet, the premise that once someone decides to become a teacher we still need to provide some sort of bonus structure to ensure that they bring their “A” game to the classroom is flawed for many reasons, but I’ll just tackle two of them.

The first has to do with why people get into the teaching profession in the first place, and it is not to make a lot of money. Ask any teacher why he or she became a teacher and the answer is typically about being inspired by a favorite teacher they had, wanting to give back to the community, an intellectual fascination with a particular subject area, or a desire to work with children and help them learn. If you got into teaching for any of these reasons or their many variations, you don’t turn it off because you’re not paid enough. There are deeper drivers at play, and if we don’t pay attention to the intrinsic motivations our teachers bring with them, we could actually do more harm than good when we set up pay-for-performance systems. As noted in Pink’s book Drive:

“Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation. When institutions…focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long-term damage.”

So, if you inadvertently chip away at the intrinsic rewards teachers get from teaching—which is the main reason they enter the profession in the first place—how is that likely to impact classroom outcomes? (That’s a rhetorical question, in case you were wondering.)

The second flaw in the pay-for-performance premise has to do with how bonuses linked to high-stakes outcomes might negatively affect a teacher’s performance. In The Upside of Irrationality, Ariely describes several experiments that got at this issue. His conclusion is that moderate and high bonuses work well for tasks that are mundane, require little creativity or problem-solving, and are largely within one’s control. So, an incentive for a professional basketball player to make a higher percentage of free throws might work well, as might a bonus for higher productivity on an assembly line. But those types of tasks don’t come close to relating to what a teacher does in the classroom. And for tasks that require innovation, creativity and problem-solving, moderate and high level incentives actually make performance drop. As Ariely notes:

“[W]hen the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.”

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t link pay and bonuses for teachers and principals to performance. No one who has ever worked with us can think that we don’t support such accountability. But there needs to be much more nuance in setting them up than is occurring in most states and districts that are trying it. And what is likely to happen when they fail is that, by association, all pay-for-performance models will be tainted by their failure.