Feature                                                      Pages 36-40


Daniel Pink on Carrots and

Sticks, Merit Pay and

Leadership Challenges

A School Administrator interview with the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us 


Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink

A teacher stands at the front of a classroom, outlining an assignment for a group project. The class is divided into randomly selected groups of three, and a list of tasks for each group member is distributed. The teacher announces that each group must use class time to create a product with provided materials by the end of the week. The highest-scoring project will be put in a special display in the school’s main office.

Sound familiar? This scenario, in which an individual is afforded little autonomy but is offered an extrinsic reward to encourage exceptional performance, dominates our world. And this is a problem, according to best-selling author Daniel Pink, a headliner at AASA’s national conferences in 2007 and 2008, in his most recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

At the heart of Drive, Pink challenges the widely held theory that external rewards always yield better performance. He describes more than 50 years of scientific research to the contrary and illustrates how some organizations have adapted these findings by giving workers greater autonomy to create more effective workplaces and more fulfilled employees. His book encourages continuous introspection, prompting readers to consider their own feelings and behavior as they survey the evidence.

Even Pink’s most surprising conclusions resonate with readers in the school system leadership ranks. Sue Zurvalec, superintendent of the Farmington, Mich., Public Schools, calls Pink’s conclusions in Drive “validating,” adding, “It gave me concrete examples and research to support my intuition and values.” (Click here for related story.)

In a recent interview with School Administrator, Pink talked about the use of carrots and sticks, merit-based pay and the most difficult job in the public sector today.

Q: You make some fascinating points in Drive about the importance of autonomy to an individual’s productivity and general well-being. What does this mean in terms of school system organization?

DANIEL PINK: Applying it to school systems is difficult. They are systems whose policies are often made by people who are not actually part of the system and don’t work in it day to day. That makes policy in general very difficult, and it makes more progressive things, like autonomy, very difficult.

Also, school systems are large institutions. They have a lot of things to do, and they are, to my mind, inadequately funded. When you have something that has a large scale and inadequate funding, you’re going to do things for efficiency’s sake, above all. And sometimes, things like autonomy, mastery and purpose don’t necessarily sync up with efficiency.

That said, good teachers have always been able to, at some level, subvert the system. The challenge is that it doesn’t scale very well. So you have a pocket of excellence here, a great teacher there, but if the system thwarts people’s autonomy, thwarts their ability to experiment, you’re just going to get little pockets. You’re not going to get anything widespread.

Q: We know well the ideal would be to have sweeping reform and supportive legislation, yet even when that does start to happen, it takes a long time to get there. Do you have any examples of teachers or administrators who are making progress within the current constraints?

PINK: There’s a book by a Stanford professor, Robert Sutton, called Good Boss, Bad Boss that looks at a lot of the research about what makes someone a good or bad boss. One of the characteristics of good bosses is that they run interference for the people who report to them. I think the good superintendents do that. They allow as much experimentation and autonomy, at all levels, as they can while also trying to shield their staff from some of the nonsense. But it’s a difficult thing to do.

Q: What kinds of legislation do you think we should be advocating for?

PINK: Well, my own view is to push responsibility downward, to the classroom level, to the building level, to the superintendent level. In other words, let the superintendent have some sovereignty over how that district runs. Likewise, a good superintendent is going to give building principals some sovereignty over how their building runs. So I think the legislative fix, in some ways, is getting out of the way, but also making what the schools are doing as transparent to the public as possible.

But, on a deeper level, there are two huge issues that we haven’t really reckoned with in education reform or in education in general. No. 1 is that, in terms of educational performance, the big, big, big driver is socioeconomic status. Upper-middle-class kids, in general, do better than middle-class kids. Middle-class kids, in general, do better than poor kids. And somehow we don’t reckon with that.

The second thing is that much of our education policy is designed for the convenience of adults rather than the education of children. It’s convenient for adults when we don’t have to pay higher taxes. And, yet, if we want smaller class sizes, we’re probably going to have to pay higher taxes. Even things like bus schedules. I’ve got two teenage daughters. Teenagers are not awake at 6:30 in the morning, and yet we put them on school buses at 6:30 because it’s convenient for the bus schedule. It’s convenient for the athletic directors.

Q: Another central theme that you discuss extensively in Drive is the shortfalls of rewards and punishments — carrots and sticks.

PINK: It’s a big part of a lot of education reform.

Q: In fact, right away in the book’s introduction you write of extrinsic rewards, saying, “Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash and pizza coupons to ‘incentivize’ them to learn. Something has gone wrong.” If schools eliminate these “incentivizers,” what takes their place?

PINK: Look at what took their place 50 years ago when we seemed to be doing an OK job of educating people. First of all, we had more intact families — because a lot of this goes to the family structure. We had talented teachers whom we let teach, and we had some level of parental and community involvement. But the problem with carrot-and-stick motivators is that, if you look at the science, they’re just not effective at encouraging complex, creative thinking.

Q: And they’ve even been detrimental, in the long run.

PINK: Absolutely. A lot of the research shows they can actually impair creativity. But at most, they’re a big zero. They don’t do anything. It’s very clear they don’t work very well for higher-order thinking, so we’re basically putting in place these policies based on the folklore about what motivates human beings rather than the science. There’s this push toward data-driven, evidence-based practices, but in this one realm of motivation, we’re kind of ignoring it. We have 50 years of research that says, “This is unlikely to work.”

A Vanderbilt study looked at middle school math teachers in Nashville public schools. Half the teachers had a chance to win a $15,000 bonus. Half of them got the regular salary over a few years. What was the difference in performance among their students? Zero. New York City public schools just pulled the plug on an elaborate [teacher bonus] system after spending $56 million because the RAND Corp. found it had zero effect.

I feel like we just keep doing this over and over again. [It’s as] if someone said, “You know what? The science shows pretty clearly that if I knock a glass off this table, it’s going to fall to the ground and break,” and we say, “Well, let’s just ignore it; let’s just try again.”


Superintendents who apply lessons from Drive

Q: What should we be doing instead?

PINK: There’s no easy answer here. I think we should raise teachers’ base pay and make it easier to get rid of teachers who aren’t up to the job. And there are underperforming teachers, just as there are underperforming accountants, baseball players, musicians.

Q: So how do you assess that?

PINK: Tough question. But, at the same time, how do you assess that when you’re an accountant? When you’re a lawyer? There have to be some judgment calls. It could be a mix of subjectivity and some kind of empirically valid formal assessment. But we say, “How do you assess who’s a good teacher or not,” as if every other profession has these perfect, foolproof, thermometer-like assessments. How do you know who’s a good accountant and who should be fired? Well, it’s a mix. It’s a mix of looking at someone’s performance at the individual level and industry standards. Somehow, with teachers, we have this notion that there’s a perfect way to assess how teachers are doing, when that’s not true in other professions.

Q: Speaking of assessment, how might student assessment be handled in a Drive-friendly system, one that encourages intrinsic motivation? Is there still a place for standardized tests, report cards and grades?

PINK: Sure. I don’t think the evidence shows that one should eliminate those things. Standardized tests do measure certain cognitive abilities that are worth measuring. But I think when you start assigning high-stakes rewards to the outcomes of these standardized tests, inevitably you’re going to get some distortions, to put it kindly. You’re going to have teachers who will say to students, “Instead of doing science experiments, memorize these scientific terms because that’s on the test.” But standardized tests on their own are not inherently evil if they’re used as a way to assess how kids are doing on this one set of cognitive skills.

In terms of grades and report cards, I think for a lot of kids in a lot of schools, grades have gone well beyond their original purpose. The purpose of a grade is to give you and your teacher feedback on how you’re doing. I think in many cases, especially as kids get closer to college, grades are the whole point. The whole point of showing up to school is to get the grade. The whole point of studying is to get the grade. It’s betrayed that idea that grades are about feedback.

How do you remedy this? It’s really hard. One thing you could do is have kids do their own self-assessment to supplement the school’s report cards. A do-it-yourself report card where the kid sets out his or her goals and then self-assesses every month or so to give the kid a sense of progress.

Also, if you really want a robust assessment of how somebody is doing, you have to consider their body of work. Let’s see a portfolio of work. Let’s have the assessment be participatory with the student. That takes a lot of time and, to go back to the other point, is inconvenient. That, to me, is one reason why standardized tests persist — because they’re cheap and convenient.

Q: We’re talking about big problems and big changes. What do you think is the biggest obstacle superintendents might face when attempting to reorganize their district to better align with the ideas in Drive?

PINK: The myriad constituencies they have to deal with each day. You can’t make a change without the school board going along. You can’t do it without principals going along. Can’t do it without parents going along. You can’t do it without teachers going along. And because those four groups’ interests are sometimes at odds, it’s very difficult to get them all singing from the same hymnbook at the same time. That’s why it’s so extraordinary that superintendents are able to get anything done. You’re dealing with diverse constituencies, a complicated system, you don’t have full control. And you’re underfinanced. Truly, I think it’s the most difficult job in the public sector today.

Q: Maybe that’s why it seems like such a big task to apply these principles to school systems. There are so many individuals, to give everybody autonomy might seem catastrophic.

PINK: Maybe. But you can do smaller things. Like, as a superintendent, you could say to your teachers, “Hey, I heard about this thing called FedEx days, where, one day a semester, some schools are saying to their students, take 24 hours, work on whatever you want and present it to your classmates the following day. I like that idea. Maybe give that a try.” In saying that, you’ve blessed and introduced a little bit of autonomy into the system for them.

Superintendents don’t have in their offices a bunch of dials that will turn up autonomy like they’d turn up the heater. What they can do is introduce things in a small way, spread good ideas, offer encouragement and hope for the best.

Betsy Samson is the editorial assistant at School Administrator.  E-mail:




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