I know some things about teachers. You see, the people I love most in this world are teachers. My parents were both teachers and inspired me to enter this profession. My wife is a teacher. Some years ago, in the small Appalachian town of Hazard, Kentucky even I was a teacher. So when we talk about the teaching profession, keep in mind … this is personal to me.

In what’s unfortunately turning into a bona-fide “blog feud” between Jennifer Hemmingsen and I on educator compensation, Hemmingsen asks the important question of “what motivates teachers” and openly asks me for a response.

First, I have to say how disappointed I was in Hemmingsen for citing parts of an unpublished draft of my dissertation. I provided a draft version to the media with the caveat that it was still in the final proofing phase before being sent for binding and inclusion with the Seton Hall library. It is disappointing that Hemmingsen violated the trust I had when making the document available for media review. Sadly, I guess I’ve learned a lesson.

Even more disappointing is the fact that Hemmingsen cherry picks some of my findings to bolster her own predisposition while leaving the other half of my conclusions out of her discussion. However, in keeping with the “card game” metaphor we seem to be developing in our back and forth, it’s clear to me that academic scholarship trumps ‘gotcha’ editorials. You see, I have a responsibility in academic writing to provide a balanced and honest point of view and to critique the weaknesses of my own arguments. It would appear some editorial writers do not operate under the same ethos.

But let’s get past the personal level of this discussion and get to the policy question, which is ultimately the more important component.

The question of “what motivates teachers” was the subject of my dissertation. In a nutshell, I asked the question of whether teachers were motivated for money and economics or motivated to help kids and to be part of something greater than themselves. The answer … “yes.”

In studying the Eagle County School district (which arguably has one of the longest running and most interesting stories on performance based compensation) I found, overwhelmingly and not surprisingly, that teachers were primarily motivated to help kids. Teachers were also heavily motivated by the concept of being part of something greater than themselves, a concept noted in the literature as “public service motivation theory.”

However, I also found that although the altruistic motivators were clearly strongest, teachers also paid more attention to those things compensation was attached to (evaluation and assessment results in Eagle County’s case).

So, it’s not one or the other, but both. Teachers are motivated to help kids. Teachers are also rational people who pay attention to economic incentives.

I’ve used my findings as a possible explanation for why simple “cash for test scores” or “merit pay” schemes fail to raise student achievement. These approaches, by themselves, they don’t pull at the major levers in what motivates teachers and they usually don’t come with any real supports to help teachers improve their craft and learn from each other.

My conclusions were that we should avoid simplistic approaches advanced by many on the “performance pay” side of the argument, but we should also avoid a defense of the status quo “step and lane” system.

Deci and Ryan’s work was made popular by writer Daniel Pink, who said that compensation systems must be “adequate and fair.” I would argue the industrial “step and lane” pay system is neither and we have a great deal of evidence that educators are responding to its incentives in ways that lead us to perverse outcomes. For example, nearly 50% of educators nationally obtain advanced degrees that have an incredibly poor research track record of success in improving teaching. Compare this with the estimated 10% of Americans who have advanced degrees overall.

Think that has something to do with the ongoing compensation incentives provided with a “lane” change? I certainly do.

Frederick Herzberg also wrote about this nearly 40 years ago and told us that while compensation wasn’t necessarily a “motivator” for improvement, it did have the capacity to “demotivate” if it weren’t well attended to. I’d hold up the evidence around attrition for teachers early in their careers and labor market shortages for special education teachers as examples that we don’t have this “right” yet. Certainly working conditions and supports are part of this conversation, but so is compensation.

So, Hemmingsen is improving in her sophistication in being able to engage in this discussion – but she still doesn’t get it as she continues to try and paint me as some kind of merit-pay hawk.

To again clarify, I’m not talking about using compensation as a motivator for teachers, I’m talking about changing compensation structures to align with things that would actually be good for schools, educators, and kids. Things like creating and paying for teacher leader roles, creating time for teachers to work together collaboratively, incenting the pursuit advanced degrees or other PD options that are aligned with what their kids need, paying more to get and keep our best teachers in front of our neediest kids, front loading pay structures to get better candidates into teaching and keep them, extending the school day/year for kids that need it, and addressing teacher labor market shortage areas. And yes, performance based elements – so long as they are coupled with support systems to help teachers improve.

The possibilities are fascinating to consider – but part of the change is that we have to stop using the cash we have in such non-strategic ways and start using it smarter.

Hemmingsen also selectively takes her shots at the school organization I was proud to be part of in Eagle County, noting the high attrition rates at the inception of human capital system change in 2001 and the leadership turnover in 2007. But again, she only tells you part of the story. When I left Eagle County, the teacher attrition rate (for those not being non-renewed for performance related reasons) was in the single digits, we had solid leadership which remains in place today, and we had the highest paying salary system in the state. Further, the district has been closing the achievement gap at an amazing pace, has been recognized by the state legislature for its innovation, has had 4 Colorado Principals of the Year in as many years, and has value added results that are just startlingly good. This in a district with a 51% Hispanic student population, along with the language learner and poverty issues that accompany that demographic statistic.

The improvements with Eagle County’s results did not occur just because of a change in compensation system. Rather, leaving the step and lane system allowed the district to better move finite resources to solve problems and achieve strategic outcomes. I don’t think anyone there would say the pay was the driver. The change primarily happened because all the pieces in the organization were pulling in the same direction and toward the same goals and the district had the flexibility in its resources to address student needs.

So, what motivates teachers? Helping kids and being part of changing the world motivates teachers. But teachers are also rational people who respond to financial incentives. Our work shouldn’t be to blindly protect a near 100 year old industrial era compensation structure, but instead to think about how we build a compensation structure that takes into account teachers’ altruistic motivations and that incents them toward things that help kids and communities. Then, we would be moving toward a system that emphasizes the real underlying motivations for educators, and that uses money strategically.