Is It Really All About the Benjamins?

The best learning environment for kids is an environment where highly-qualified adults work collaboratively. We need to incentivize cooperation, not competition, among our educators.
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As both a former teacher and a MBA, I'm struck these days by two things: first, the ubiquity of "business thinking" in today's education reform strategies; and second, the complete absence of the sort of business thinking we actually need to be heeding.

For example, many reformers are currently abuzz with the idea of incentivizing teacher performance by offering financial bonuses for improved student test scores. This seems like Business 101, right? Yet most forward-thinking businesses have recognized, for years, the limitations of this strategy. Dan Pink has posted a useful video in which he cites a study by, of all entities, the Federal Reserve, showing how cash incentives work well - as long as the desired behaviors involve simple, non-cognitive tasks. (Is there anything less simple and non-cognitive than teaching?) Similarly, a recent article in Psychology Today cites numerous studies to suggest that "well-being in the workplace is, in part, a function of helping employees do what is naturally right for them by freeing them to do so -- through behaviors that influence employee engagement and therefore that increase the frequency of positive emotions." And that same spirit is found in the recommendations of top private sector consultants, such as Harvard Professor John Kotter, who, writing in the Harvard Business Review as far back as 1979, wrote: "Considerable research has demonstrated that, in general, participation leads to commitment, not merely compliance."

None of this is rocket science. In fact, everybody from Jim Collins to Stephen Covey has written about the danger of assuming that nonlinear beings (e.g., humans) can be made to perform simply, predictably, and linearly, and about the power of creating an organizational culture where responsibility and authority is shared. Yet if you look at the most popular current ideas about how to improve our schools, you'll see too much of the former thinking -- and too little of the latter.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that improving teacher salaries is unimportant. I'm an enthusiastic supporter of the idea. (Who wouldn't be?) What is foolish, however, is to intimate that the best way to motivate teachers is by linking their salaries -- and prospects for career advancement -- to cash bonuses and student test scores.

What should we do instead?

First, let's invest deeply, and over the long haul, in an interdependent set of policies that establish a true teaching profession in this country and focus on not just evaluating but also recruiting, supporting, retaining, and equitably distributing our most effective teachers. (My former organization, the Forum for Education & Democracy, has a nice white paper on the subject, which should provide a useful starting point for the discussion. And I recently spoke with the BBC about what we might learn from other countries around the world.)

Second, let's recognize once and for all that the best learning environment for kids is an environment where highly-qualified adults work collaboratively to improve both the conditions for student learning and the quality of their own professional practice. We need to incentivize cooperation, not competition, among our educators.

And finally, let's start being honest about two things: the first is that we are data-rich and insight-poor -- we have reams of information to tell us little more than how students are progressing annually on basic-skills reading and math tests -- not insignificant, but insufficient for determining whether students are truly becoming "college and career ready"; and the second is that we need to do everything we can to develop more useful, balanced and comprehensive student and teacher evaluation systems -- and that's going to take some time if we really want to get it right, so we're going to need to stop pretending that we've already figured it all out.

Let's face it -- as much as we'd like to believe it, when it comes to creating powerful learning environment, it's really not about the Benjamins.

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