Thursday, September 23, 2010

The surprising truth of motivation

Yesterday, WPLN news, Nashville’s local public radio station, ran a piece that directly applies to our work. The news story, entitled Study finds no test score boost from teacher incentives, reports that monetary incentives for teachers did little to boost student test scores.

This study conducted by Vanderbilt University and commissioned by the US Department of Education, tracked middle school math teachers here in Nashville for three years. According to the report, half of the teachers were offered substantial bonuses if students’ scores improved. And the study did find improvement. However, there were similar improvements by classrooms ineligible for the bonuses. These results lead the study director to say “incentives didn’t seem to make a difference.” (Cardona, 2010)

So the million dollar question is not only finding what motivates improved students’ test scores, but also finding what motivates teachers to work towards improved test scores. More broadly, leaders and managers, and US Department of Educations, must look at what motivates people as they seek to generate results such as improved test scores, higher productivity, or deeper levels of engagement.

McGregor explores the principles of motivation in his 1960 study about Theory X and Theory Y. He purports that lower level need satisfactions, once met, cease to remain grounds for motivation. For example, McGregor says that once the ‘physiological needs’ are satisfied they no longer are considered a motivator of behavior. (McGregor, 1960) Furthermore, McGregor explains that things like “overtime pay, shift differentials, vacations, health and medical benefits, annuities, and the proceeds from stock purchase plans or profit-sharing plans” do not meet a higher level emotional need and therefore does not lead to motivation. Instead, he calls for management to move towards Theory Y, or a perspective that the “potentialities of the average human being are far above those which we typically realize in industry today.” (1960) Theory Y pushes leadership and organizations to appeal to the higher levels of human consciousness and needs to create motivation and productivity.

The example of the Nashville public school study supports the proposition by Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy (1993) that “extrinsic rewards like praise, compensation, promotion, privileges, and time off may not have the same effects of behavior as intrinsic rewards such as feelings of accomplishment, personal growth, and development.” (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 1993)

Choi (2006) also speaks to motivation based on higher levels of self-actualization through envisioning and empowering workers to engage in the fulfillment of the vision. (Choi, 2006) Additionally, Goleman (2000) offers that the authoritative leader, or one who offers a vision and “motivates people by making clear to them how their work fits into a larger vision for the organization,” has the most positively correlated affect on organizational climate which is linked to motivation and productivity. (Goleman, 2000)

And modern ‘pop-theorists’ like Daniel Pink couldn’t agree more. Pink offers that motivation isn’t about money at all. But rather it’s about fitting into the bigger picture and feeling like an individual’s work is of value. He’s created a brilliant video that visually illustrates the variations in the aforementioned theories. It’s worth the 7 minutes it takes to watch.

Although theorists are possibly getting closer to the elusive catalyst that motivates teachers, they still have a ways to go to translate that into improved test scores. Perhaps Vanderbilt University will be leading the study again.

Works Cited

Cardona, N. (2010, September 21). Study finds no test score boost from teacher incentives. Retrieved September 22, 2010, from

Choi, J. (2006). A motivational theory of charismatic leadership: Envisioning, empathy, and empowerment. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies , 24-43.

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review , 78-90.

Hughes, R., Ginnett, R., & Curphy, G. (1993). Power, influence, and influence tactics. In R. Irwin, Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (pp. 339-351).

McGregor, D. (1960). Theory X: The traditional view of direction and control. NY: McGraw-Hill.


  1. Shai,
    I really enjoyed reading your article and have conducted a lot of research in this area. Do you feel like public school teachers needs are not being met at the most basic levels, and therefore, are unable to see the final goal? I also found it interesting in this study that the goals of No Child Left Behind play a significant role in teachers feeling less satisfied and less motivated to work because of the strains of high stakes testing. President Obama has proposed new legislation to the bill such as more funding, fewer schools being labeled as "failing" and higher testing standards for all states. How do you think this will effect the morale and motivation of teachers?
    Thanks for a great post!

  2. This reminds me of a study we learned about in my Learning and Performance class, the Hawthorne Effect. The study's results were basically that one group outperformed another because they were being paid special attention. However, now it is recognized that more likely, the one group outperformed because they could visibly see their progress and productivity being tracked. (Gilbert, M. & Gilbert, T., 1991). I think this is linked to motivation and to McGregor's Theory Y because employees do want to perform and do want to be productive, contrary to Theory X beliefs. When the employees in the Hawthorne study saw that their productivity mattered to their supervisors, they realized their potential impact.
    Holly, I think your comment is interesting. I think part of the problem is that teachers do not view the standardized tests as an accurate measure of their teaching; therefore they are becoming less and less motivated the more and more testing is pushed. If their performance was tracked in a way that they saw as motivational and as an accurate assessment maybe they would feel more satisfied?

  3. Shai,

    This was a really interesting article and study. I took an undergraduate class about high poverty youth and we focused on the lack of guidance and instruction that students experience inside of the classroom. I constantly mulled over how teachers and schools can revamp their curriculum and help these kids who are in dire need of a beneficial educational experience. Now that external incentives have proven to be ineffective, it is even more important to focus on how to foster this intrinsic passion and motivation that teachers need to make a difference in the lives of their students. As you mentioned, I believe that teachers need to be reminded of their mission and vision and their crucial role in our society.

  4. Thanks for your post, Shai. Even on a larger scale, we often hear in the news of the effects of high-stakes rewards for short-term payoffs played out over a long period of time as a reason for our recent recession and economic downturn. Given what we're learning about human motivation, it is fascinating to see how our understanding of motivation can have collateral consequences on not just education at large, but also our economy!


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