With apologies to Frederick Herzberg:  “One more time, how do you motivate teachers?”

More than thirty years ago, Herzberg wrote a short article in the Harvard Business Review trying to dispel dominant myths about how to motivate employees:

“Let us consider motivation. If I say to you, “Do this for me or the company, and in return I will give you a reward, an incentive, more status, a promotion, all the quid pro quos that exist in the industrial organization”, am I motivating you?

The overwhelming opinion I receive from management people is, “Yes, this is motivation.” I have a year-old Schnauzer. When it was a small puppy and I wanted to move it, I kicked it in the rear and it moved. Now that I have finished its obedience training, I hold up a dog biscuit when I want the Schnauzer to move. In this instance, who is motivated – I or the dog? The dog wants the biscuit, but it is I who want it to move. Again, I am the one who is motivated, and the dog is the one who moves. In this instance all I did was apply KITA [a kick in the ass] frontally; I exerted a pull instead of a push. When industry wishes to use such positive KITAs, it has available an incredible number and variety of dog biscuits (jelly beans for humans) to wave in front of employees to get them to jump.”

This basic idea has been shown time and time again. Extrinsic rewards crowd out intrinsic rewards; pay-for-performance schemes don’t drive performance; contingent pay doesn’t motivate. But don’t think that the myth doesn’t endure.

This week, it showed up in Manhattan, where one charter school has decided to splash out on $125k salaries for its teachers, hoping that oversize salaries will result in quality education. The teachers will teach bigger classes (30 students) and shoulder more administrative burdens and be supported by fewer social workers (one or two for a school of 480 low-income students from Washington Heights) But they’ll deliver Great Education! Why? Because they get huge paycheques. No, really:

“A New York City charter school set to open in 2009 in Washington Heights will test one of the most fundamental questions in education: Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.

The school, which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance. “

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers are underpaid as a group, especially in the United States, where in some districts they have all the earning power of a maquiladora worker. But if this scheme of huge salaries and lousy conditions works out the way the school anticipates, I’ll eat my hat.

Photo: Jessamyn