As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of teacher merit pay (see The Best Resources For Learning Why Teacher Merit Pay Is A Bad Idea).

Some school reformers and researchers have suggested that providing merit pay for entire schools is an alternative, though I’m not a supporter of those kinds of group incentives for similar reasons why I’m opposed to individual merit pay.

I asked Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, about his take on group incentives, and he was kind enough to respond (I’ve written a lot about his work).

What’s your take on the whole idea of group versus individual incentives?

To me, the difference is less about groups versus individuals than about other, deeper factors. For instance, the big problem with “if-then” rewards isn’t the rewards but the “if-then,” the contingency. Those types of mechanisms are forms of control. Control can be effective for simple, algorithmic tasks — but a disaster for more complex, creative, conceptual ones. So the real issue here is whether the rewards are controlling — or whether they’re operating as forms of feedback and information. Also, a big problem with contingent rewards are that people can game the system. Individual rewards are much harder to game than group ones. For example, I can cut corners and shift around orders in order to make my own monthly sales look good. But it’s tough for one person to singlehandedly manipulate and distort company profits. One reason that group incentives can sometimes work better than individual ones is that they’re harder to game — so people end up just doing their jobs.

Do you share a concern about its “workability” in a school situation and, to make the question even broader, do you have any thoughts about a general criteria to apply or thoughts to keep in mind to distinguish between incentive ideas and strategies that might be appropriate for businesses but not in schools? This is of particular concern to many of us in education who find ourselves dealing with some efforts to “run schools more like businesses.”

Absolutely. Here’s what people never seem to realize: Schools aren’t businesses. Even people who think schools are businesses can never tell me whether students are the product or the customer. But most parents don’t want their kids to be either products or customers. They want them to be human beings who learn and grow. The idea that we can accomplish that singlehandedly through teacher or school bonuses is silly.

What are your thoughts on the use of group incentives in education and Daniel Pink’s other comments?