Back in the sixties, a piece of business jargon became current and made its way into respected dictionaries: incentivize. We encounter this odious word nowadays in two national discussions: ( 1) whether cutting taxes will motivate employers to hire, and (2) whether offering bonuses to teachers will raise students' test scores. The first is one of many issues upon which economists will forever divide. The second is an argument that I hope will soon be put to bed .
A major study was released last week by Vanderbilt University and the Rand Corporation that concluded teacher bonuses don't raise children's test scores. The study was conducted in Nashville over a three year period, using randomization and control groups, and offering bonuses of up to 37.5% of salary to math teachers in grades five through eight. The only measurable improvement was among fifth graders, but it disappeared by the sixth grade.
The Washington Post observed: " The study suggests that teachers already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their effort or change methods of instruction."
The Obama administration has quadrupled funds available for "incentivizing" teachers in its Race to the Top program. Education Department officials often talk about changing the "culture of teaching," but never about the "culture of students."
Incentives work, provided they're directed at the variable that needs to be motivated.
Augustinian Nun by Piero della Francesca, 15th Century. I remember liking this artist when I first encountered his work in college because I saw, or projected, a deadpan humor in his portraiture. This painting is a good example. I bet it gives every former parochial school student a case of the willies. Click on the picture for a closer look.