It seems simple, right?  Offer bonuses to teachers that bring big gains in student achievement, and you’ll get better performance out of your teachers.  But, a pack of studies over this past year seems to have rained on the teacher performance pay parade.  Back in June,  a study from Mathematica on an initiative in Chicago found “no evidence that the program raised student test scores”.  This study, like many of its type, compared the “value-added” of teachers participating in the performance pay program against those who did not as measured by student test scores.

In September, in one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt concluded a three-year study on a performance pay program in Nashville and found that, “students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teacherswere assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses).”

Just today, Ed Week reported that a study by Harvard Economist Ronald Fryer on a teacher pay program at over two-hundred schools in New York City found, “no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”

Wow, that’s a lot of smart people supported by big research budgets saying that the education reform cabal wants to throw money in a hole.  Unfortunately, these studies missed the point and confused the policy question.  And, a simple look at management research on motivation over the last century would have confirmed the results of these studies before they began.

Each of these studies were constructed to test the notion that paying teachers who reach higher academic gains will incentivize those teachers to focus and work in a way that they otherwise would not.  The studies frame additional payment for performance as a motivator.  If it works in the private sector, it must work in education, right?

Except that a significant body of research has shown that it actually doesn’t work in the private sector.  Or any sector for that matter.  In one of the original and classic works of organizational psychology, “One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees?” (1968), Frederick Herzberg combined dozens of his own studies (of several sectors of the economy) with 16 other studies from all over the world on what motivates people in the work place.  Herzberg’s study found the strongest motivational factors across the board concerned “a sense of achievement”, “recognition”, and the “work itself”.  Where was pay on this list?  Pay was never actually found to be a motivator.  In fact, the combined results of these studies showed money to be more de-motivating than motivating.  And, on the scale of comparison with other factors, it was on the low end of influence in either direction.

Unsurprisingly, the Chicago, Nashville, and New York found results consistent with Herzberg.  However, that does not mean that pay for performance is bad human capital policy in education.  Where performance pay will ultimately prove effective is not as a motivator, but as a simple factor in labor economics.  Performance pay will not bring a teacher (who likely did not take their teaching job under the promise of performance incentives in the first place) to suddenly leave their B game at home and bring their A game.  But, higher pay will attract more talented people into the teaching workforce who might otherwise not consider it.  Performance pay will make competition around the average teacher vacancy more intense.  That competition would be good for students.  And, by framing pay for performance around the attainment of better than average student achievement goals, the performance bonus provides a market signal specifically to those who think they can hit the target.