Saturday, April 23, 2016

Getting Better

Some days I think the problems behind ed reform boil down to a basic misunderstanding of human nature.

In Ed Week a few weeks back, Marc Tucker wrote about getting great teachers in every classroom (I would rather talk about helping the teacher in every classroom to do more great teaching, but okay) and in the midst of that discussion, he drops this

There are, of course, teachers who do work really hard, year after year, to get better and better at the work, but they are the ones driven by an inner demon, not ordinary mortals like you and me.  So, while it is probably true that most of our teachers could be really good, really expert, there are not nearly enough of them, because they have no incentive to do so. 

I'm really stumped here. Is Tucker seriously suggesting that ordinary mortals don't want to get better at what they do?

The observation comes in the context of reporting that it takes ten years to achieve expertise, spurred by the rewards of climbing a career ladder. And here he goes

It says that happens only if the individual keeps working hard, year after year, to become better and better at the work.  But teachers have no incentive to do that.

This is just bonkers. The world is filled with people who work to get better and better at what they do, because that's how people are wired. Every single one of my students cannot help trying to get better and better at things that they value. The confusion, I think, occurs because we force so many people in our society to do things, improve at things, get better at things they don't give a rat's rear about.

Yes, if you want someone to get better at processing G-34/A forms that mean nothing to anyone, you will have to incentivize that work. But where you find people doing something they love, you find people trying to get better for the same reason you find them breathing and eating-- because that is what human beings are wired to do. We are learning and growing machines. But some people have always tried to "harness" that power by breaking people and trying to make them grow in approved directions, like a demented gardener who just keeps chopping and pruning and building obstacles to force trees to grow sideways.

Growing and improving is normal. Every person I know who plays music, in any capacity, is always trying to do better, spurred on by exactly zero external reward-based incentive. Every person I know who does a job they enjoy is always trying to do better. Every kid who ever tried to make a mud pie kept trying to improve the design and construction process. I cannot believe this is a thing we need to explain.

Reformsters keep embedding this faulty notion into their understanding of teaching over and over and over again-- that teachers will only do a non-crappy job of navigating the education maze if policy makers can find a better piece of cheese to offer. Teachers will only improve through training and development if we tie it to the correct complex of carrots and sticks.

This is nuts. First of all, teaching is one field where it is absolutely clear, up front, that you need to be intrinsically motivated to enter. "I went into teaching so I could make big money, power and prestige," said no teacher ever. The appeal used to be that you could do important work and be largely left alone to pursue excellence in your own way. Now the work is forcefully downgraded (help young folks grow has been replaced with help young folks do test prep) and the freedom to pursue excellence is increasingly stripped from the job.

Second, teaching has the best, most immediate feedback loop of almost any profession or research field. Every classroom is a laboratory, and every lesson is an experiment. "Think I'll try teaching adverbs by using fluffy stuffed zebras," you think, and after about ten minutes you know whether you have a genius idea on your hands or something for your Never Again file. And it's not just about measuring data-- a teacher who implements a bad lesson plan gets to suffer the consequences in real time. Make a bad step in the classroom and your students will make you pay for it for the next thirty minutes. No spread sheets or number crunching necessary; the consequences of your choices are felt immediately. This is one more reason that teachers are hugely motivated to get better.

There's no question that mentoring from other teachers is hugely, enormously, infinitely helpful, and that many school systems have grossly inadequate systems in place to support such mentoring. But again-- when a helpful experienced teacher shows up at your door when you're trying to figure out how to approach a tricky lesson, it's not necessary for them to say, "I'll give you thirty bucks to take my advice."

Everything in my personal experience says that people want to get better at the things they value. There's a whole world of argument and discussion to be unpacked form the words "better" and "value," not to mention the whole "how to" question-- but everything I know says the basic motivation is in there if it hasn't been too badly damaged or broken. My entire teaching career is about finding it and tapping into it. And teaching, as a career, is uniquely configured to tap into it. Reformers need to stop trying to build a bridge across a beautiful valley that we can just walk through.


  1. Yes. YES. YES! After thirty years of teaching English, I still learn from my flops and from my colleagues. I do not improve because I might get a bonus.

  2. The irony of test-based reform is that senseless demands now drain the all important time and energy that teachers desperately need to work toward real improvement. Instead, we are forced to waste our time trying to conform to various micro-management distractions that have nothing to do with better teaching. Checking off Danielson rubric boxes has taken the place of much more meaningful, creative, and collaborative teacher efforts. Only the some most experienced, senior teachers can afford the luxury of ignoring the BS.

  3. "it's not just about measuring data-- a teacher who implements a bad lesson plan gets to suffer the consequences in real time. Make a bad step in the classroom and your students will make you pay for it for the next thirty minutes. No spread sheets or number crunching necessary . . ."

    This is so "Duh!"-level obvious to anyone who teaches for a living that it immediately resonates. I don't stay up until 2 am revising my entire stoichiometry unit before I teach Lesson 2 tomorrow because I will get a bonus if I do or a censure if I don't. I do it because I can't go back into that classroom where everybody in the room knows Lesson 1 was a flop and face those kids with more of the same tomorrow.

    But it's not obvious to someone who gets paid by a billionaire to sit in an office or cafe all day hammering out anti-union tweets and figuring out creative ways to twist research to fit a privatization narrative. I think that's why we have this huge disconnect between those of us who teach kids and those of us who pretend we know how to teach kids.

  4. I find it mind-boggling that reformers who think teachers can't carry out their life's work professionally without a financial incentive are perfectly willing to accept that a student will do her best on a BS test that she has no stake in at all.

    1. I just saw that first-hand. Because they added more tests without extending the test window, we no longer got to test our own kids. I had about ten who, without anyone to stare them down and make them continue, just clicked through and failed. Is it a measure of their knowledge? No. It is a measure of the stupidity of the testing system. It didn't help that an already long test had ten additional trial questions scattered throughout that the company was field testing. The extra lenght impacted the performance of the students.

    2. You might want to think about this another way. How can we make it an easy choice for the best, most dedicated, teachers to stay in the class room where they are needed? Part of the answer might be to increase their salary without requiring them to 1) move to a richer school district or 2) share the salary increase with a school of education.

      The flexibility of negotiating individual salaries allows my university to make counter offers to faculty who have been offered employment at other institutions. This flexibility is needed in public K-12 as well.

      It is time that public school as an institution recognize that women have far more exciting and intellectually stimulating choices available to them than in the past. Higher salaries for the most capable is one way for K-12 education to compete.

    3. teachingeconomist -

      Here is the problem with your proposal to increase salaries for "the most capable." On the surface, it makes economic sense. If you really want something, you have to be prepared to pay more for it. But, public schools do not exist in an environment where they can easily expand their "income" to pay these higher salaries. Political realities get in the way and those realities are not easily swept away.

      In Indiana, where I live, school districts have to pass referendums to pay for things like pay increases or to build new buildings in growing school districts (oftentimes students will go to school in those portable classrooms for years until a referendum passes).

      In Indiana, a lot of the money for schools comes directly from the state and the state has hard and fast rules about how that money will be spent. A certain percentage has to go to transportation, a certain percentage to building maintenance and a certain percentage to salaries and benefits. You may not raid one fund to pay bills in another. Never ever.

      This year our legislature proposed a law that would allow districts to pay bonuses to teachers in hard to fill positions. But, they offered no raise in the budget for salaries and benefits. Literally, a retention bonus for a chemistry teacher would meant that other teachers would get paid less to make up the difference. Can you really tell me that the STEM teacher that teaches AP Chemistry is more important than the easier to fill position of elementary teacher that taught those same students how to read? How will we be able to sustain those programs if we take money away from every other teacher just to pay bonuses to a few?

    4. DWD,

      Everyone has a budget. Large public universities like mine also have limited means to increase revenue, but still we do manage to retain faculty with offers from other institutions all the time by offering a higher salary. It is an environment that we have learned to live with. It is an environment that public schools will have to learn to live with if they are going to live in a world where women are not restricted to a very few occupations.

      It does mean that there will be differences in pay across different faculty members. There are these differences at universities between individuals within a department, differences in average pay across departments within a school, and differences in average pay across schools within the university. It is also true that if we reduced the salary of high salaried faculty (typically the folks at the professional schools like Business, Medical, Engineering) we could increase the salaries of lower paid faculty (typically the folks in the humanities and fine arts). If we did that, however, I think it likely we would have to close the medical school, shrink the engineering school by closing departments that teach the highest earning types of engineering, and probably stop teaching accounting and possibly finance in the business school because we would be unable to hire faculty in those areas at salaries appreciably lower than we currently pay.

      I think that you will find that salary differences at universities do not reflect any difference in "importance", just the realities of competing in a market for talented faculty members. A university distinguished professor, the highest academic rank at my university and reserved for the small number of faculty who have an international reputation in their discipline, might well make less than an assistant professor, the lowest academic rank for tenure stream faculty, in another school. No one would say that an assistant professor is more "important" than a university distinguished professor. The assistant professor is just more expensive.

  5. People who pursue money and power have had to abandon all intrinsic motivation and internal judgment. They are solely ruled by what it takes to get more power and more money - all of which is external. They no longer have a conception of internal motivation. You'd have a better chance of explaining Renoir to a blind man than explaining intrinsic motivation to a power/money chaser.

  6. Amen! I also think it's important to highlight your point about focusing on improving the teachING happening in classrooms rather than the teachER. That working conditions matter immensely in any conversation of teaching. That the exact same person can be phenomenal when supported in a fully-resourced environment, where collaboration and autonomy are prized. Where high concentrations of kids with trauma, special needs, or living in unabated poverty are not warehoused all in the same place in a "throw away" school or a "throw away" classroom within a school. But throw that same person in the worst teaching conditions and watch anyone struggle.

    When the problem is gross inequality, large classes, no resources, difficult behaviors all coupled with harsh micromanaging of the staff, no one gets to be their best. When folks complain, "But I've seen 'bad teachers' at their desks reading a newspaper" you can immediately guess what type of learning/teaching environment that person is in. But we NEVER talk about it. Everything is individualized.

    Eh, we know these reformers aren't about actually improving education. It's all about using the excuse of "bad teachers" to close schools, privatize, union-bust, etc etc. By now you'd think more people would get that placing shiny new individuals in horrible, life-sucking teaching conditions doesn't change the fundamental problems. But, no.

  7. Thank you for putting it in print. I became a teacher because I love kids and I felt that I could do great work. I had a wonderfully satisfying career until NCLB hit us. Since then, I have been increasingly burdened with having to act out other people's theories of what works, not what I know works with the kids I have. My paperwork to document all of this has doubled. I must waste time attending meetings to look at data and share where we are succeeding or failing and take others' advice or give my own, even though our kids are different. I have no time to be creative and follow the interests of my students. I am being asked to teach materials I personally dislike and don't feel have merit. Kids come with less background knowledge and accumulated learning every year, so I spend more time reteaching basics. What was passion and joy is becoming drudgery. However, I still find time to give it my twist and constantly look for new ideas and methods. I stay at work for several hours extra every day because i don't have time during the school day to search and plan. I care and it is my passion, even after 30 years of teaching and working in schools. I wish they would leave me alone, so I could achieve the greatness I once had when I was in control of it all. Those students, now adults, always ask me if I am still doing lessons they remember after all these years. One even told me I sparked his career with an activity we did in my classroom. He is now a successful Christian rap artist. I miss the days of glory. Giving incentives will not change how I work. What it does change is that it pits teachers against each other. We have different children each year. Last year, none of mine failed our state test. This year, 10 did. I have special ed kids this year. Did I work less hard? No, I worked harder. Some of them just cannot be successful in the format they are tested in. Incentives just mean no one want to teach those kids and that would be a shame because they are amazing.

  8. I wonder if Mr. Tucker pays his loved ones each year at Thanksgiving to make sure dinner will be better than last year's.

    I wonder if Mr. Tucker is in a committed long-term relationship and pays his partner to improve their performance in the bedroom.

    I wonder if Mr. Tucker has children of his own and demands payment before he is willing to improve as a father.

    Insisting that teachers need financial incentives (bribes) to improve is every bit as repulsive.

  9. Maybe part if the problem lies in the new societal belief that there has to be an extrinsic reward ($$, bonuses, trips, awards, etc.) for you to want to work hard. Too many folks have lost the intrinsic motivation continual improvement provides. I'm constantly reminded that our students expect (and deserve) instantaneous rewards for doing something ordinary like working independently when given time in class. Kind of like the award-for-showing-up mentality the last 2 generations of kids have grown up with. Many of these individuals are the leaders of the reformy projects - they don't push themselves without an external carrot in the form of more money or recognition, so why would anyone else. Don't think this is making the sense I want it to, so I'll stop now!

  10. Any real classroom teacher knows it is exhausting to teach badly. That's why the ones who stick around do all they can to get better. They find mentors, rehash failures, get up in the middle of the night to revise, show up early to school and leave late. That's what it takes to get better. Tucker and his ilk are talking hypotheticals and they simply have no idea.

    Christine Langhoff

  11. Once again, you have perfectly spoken the truth. Thank you.