Teacher Work Motivation in the Era of Extrinsic Incentives: A Descriptive Study of Three Charter Schools in the USA
This paper reports on a design development study on a pay for performance (PFP) project in three charter high schools in the state of California (USA) serving high numbers of low-income children of color. The PFP design consists of multiple measures (test scores, teaching evaluations, and participation in school development activities) and its main objective is improving student achievement by increasing teacher effectiveness.
We use the literature on teacher work motivation and work motivation more generally to develop a conceptual framework that helps us understand the motivational dynamics existing in the schools. The purpose of the paper is to map out a baseline: teachers’ work motivation patterns before the implementation of the PFP system.
Work motivation has been conceptualized with various theoretical models. We make reference to four main ones that we believe have direct application to this discussion: expectancy theory, goal setting theory, self-determination theory, and self-concept theory. In expectancy theory, workers anticipate rewards and strive to attain the rewards when they expect that increased effort will result in the reward, called expectancy, and when the reward itself is of value to them, called valence (Lawler, 1973). In goal setting theory, rewards are secondary. Goals themselves are the primary force. Goals need to be specific so that workers can judge their attainment level. And they need to be seen as attainable and worthwhile. Feedback enhances the motivational power of goal setting (Locke & Latham, 1990). In either model, it does not matter whether goals or rewards come from outside or inside the worker, but rewards or goals need to be sharp or distinct enough to be calculable.
In self-determination theory, the distinction between internal and external, or intrinsic and extrinsic, sources of motivation is paramount. Human beings are seen as steered by elemental needs for competence, autonomy, and belonging. And workers are motivated by their work to the degree that they are able to fulfill these needs. They tend not to calculate or count, but act according to more diffuse internal flows of energy. External motivators, for example organizational goals, expectations, standards, or incentives, etc., may be integrated into these internal flows to the degree that they enhance individuals’ sense of competence, autonomy, and belonging (Gagne & Deci, 2005), or prevent their diminishment. Self-concept theory (Shamir, 1990, 1991) shares many of the assumptions of self-determination theory, except that needs fulfillment is not the central engine, but self-evaluation: the dissonance between one’s commitments to socially generated, internalized values and performance realities.
We primarily follow a model by Meyer, Becker, & Vandenberghe (2004) that integrates work commitment theory, self-determination theory, and goal setting theory to explain work behavior and outcomes. This model helps us highlight salient relationships between broader commitments, externally or internally regulated motives, task-specific goal setting, and discretionary and non-discretionary work behavior.
The study is a mixed methods study of three cases and the individuals working in them. Contact with the schools has been intensive and frequent. Data collection is ongoing. The sample is relatively small, but explored with attention to detail. The data set consists of teacher and student surveys, lesson observations, interviews with teachers and administrators, and lesson observations. Findings reported for this paper are limited to motivational patterns prior to the new scheme, mostly based on a teacher questionnaire administered to all teachers in the three schools, interviews with identified key informants (21), and participation in three professional development sessions.
Given the small number of cases, quantitative data is analyzed with simple procedures, such as frequencies, comparisons of means, scatterplots, correlations, and cross-tabulations. The purpose of the quantitative analysis is sketching the broad quantitative contours of patterns that are explored further with more qualitative detail (not to generalize).
We found the following patterns of work motivation. First, teachers perceive themselves to be more strongly internally than externally motivated in their work, but this internal orientation does not exclude them from valuing extrinsic rewards, prestige, and status.
Second, the relationship between work motivation and the pursuit of goals shows that in the three schools precise goals are not strongly embraced by teachers. Diffuse commitments prevail over precise goals.
Third, the relationship between work motivation and work behaviors (effort, persistence, and participation in learning) shows that effort and persistence are correlated modestly with perceived difficulty of goals and a sense of personal ownership of the work. Moreover, participation in learning activities is not correlated with diffuse commitments, but more strongly associated with a goal setting and feedback dynamic. Learning is especially strong when feedback signals or cues competence.
Overall, for further study bonus pay incentives in the three schools, we seem to be dealing with two separate motivational force fields, one around internally regulated diffuse commitments and effort; the other around goal setting and learning. While the latter might be an easier anchor, the former questions the motivational power of reward money. Qualitative data will help us refine this pattern.
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