Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I’ve been waiting to comment on the documentary Waiting for Superman, until I could let my emotions cool. For, make no mistake, this movie is brilliantly designed to evoke an emotional response. Anyone with access to televised news over the past several weeks has surely seen clips of cute but desperate children waiting and hoping to be chosen by lottery for the charter school slots that will make or break their lives.

I understand the rationale and the power of such vignettes. At least two generations of idealistic young people were attracted to careers in education by Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Savage Inequalities (1991), both of which books illustrated with heart-breaking clarity the patently unequal educational opportunity available to poor children in this country — and tolerated by most of us without a whimper.

Superman, however, is different. It is taken as some sort of in-depth analysis of the problems with American public schools and purports to offer a solution: the charter schools that those heart-tugging children are so desperate to get into. I, of course, made a decision long ago (partly motivated by that first Kozol book and partly in reaction to my own experience with 12 years of parochial schooling) to support the best possible public schools as a solution that reaches every child. I have followed through on that commitment for decades, by volunteering thousands of hours in the classroom, starting and contributing ongoing effort to parent groups, working on a campaign to bring greater equity to public school funding in Michigan, and serving as a public school board trustee for 20 years. So, I am clearly on the side of public school reform that reaches all children — and that means fixing and investing in the structure and the people we have, rather than throwing everything out to start over.

Obviously, then, my inclination is to resent the emotional manipulation of the film and to cry out for a cooler-headed analysis of what is wrong and how to fix it.

I will begin by noting that the Harlem Children’s Zone model, which is implicitly touted as the answer, is no such thing. Not because it is a bad model, but because it is not replicable. Two-thirds of the project’s considerable expenditures come from private foundations and wealthy benefactors. The $16,000 per student spent in the classroom is just the beginning. A wrap-around series of social services begins with “Baby College” for expectant parents, and extends through free pre-school programs, free after-school programs, additional funding for “healthy meals,” in-school medical and dental care (with personnel paid for by a local hospital and foundation), and free college search advising. Additionally, the project organizes block associations, makes over playgrounds and parks, and renovates housing. In other words, it attempts to completely change poor children’s lives by changing every aspect of their environment.

Does anyone seriously think this model is coming to a school near them?

So let’s not pretend that it is The Answer.

Even the more attainable, garden-variety charter school is hardly a panacea. Waiting for Superman implies that they are all so wonderful that families do and should fight over getting slots in them. But the facts do not bear out this impression. A well-respected (i.e., not slanted) study by Stanford University found just 17% of charter schools performing better, 37% worse, and the remainder about the same as traditional public schools.

A better solution — one inadvertently endorsed by the film — is the Finland model. Setting aside that that nation’s children benefit from a birth-to-death social safety net that the Harlem Children’s Zone can only dream of, there are elements that we could emulate in an attempt to copy that country’s climb from the bottom to the top of international educational standings. (See Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education or Steady Work: How Finland Is Building a Strong Teaching and Learning System for a detailed account of how this transition was accomplished.) Teaching is a prestigious profession there; only a small percentage of applicants are accepted to the state-paid teacher education programs; the (fully unionized) teachers are very well paid. They are also empowered to design valid assessments themselves — and results on them correlate highly with international measures of student achievement. Ours do not.

The lesson I take from this is that treating and supporting teachers as professionals (which includes high standards in their recruitment, training, and performance) is a proven way to make tremendous progress, quickly, for all.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What motivates workers?

In the spring of 2009, I remember being infuriated by a Wall Street Journal article in which it was called “poetic justice” that the United Auto Workers would “finally have a direct stake in the survival and prosperity of General Motors and Chrysler.” The reporter was referring to the negotiated payments to the VEBA (voluntary employee beneficiary association) for UAW retiree health care being paid in stock rather than the agreed-upon cash, due to impending bankruptcy. I (not a UAW member nor a relative of one) found that opinion both stupid and insulting. In what way did auto workers not have a direct stake before? Their pay/pensions and benefits have always been dependent on the prosperity of the companies, and most of them held (now worthless) stock, as well — because they believe in and are proud of their work! When you are intimately involved in making tangible products that you, your friends, and your neighbors use every day, you are both literally and figuratively invested in their quality and in the success of the company. I think that personal stake is something not well understood by folks far removed from manufacturing. Pride is a powerful motivator.

What has this to do with education? It is now widely assumed that educators can be spurred to better performance by that universal motivational tool: money. The federal Race to the Top program of competitive grants specifically insists that teacher pay and job security be linked to performance — and that performance is to be measured largely by student performance on standardized tests. All over the country, teachers are being urged to give up tenure in favor of the possibility of much higher pay, should their charges’ test scores improve dramatically. The underlying rationale for this “pay for performance” is that teachers will thus be motivated to work harder at their jobs. This assumption, like the WSJ assumption that auto workers did not care about their companies or products, is also stupid and insulting. I cannot imagine that anyone goes into public school teaching for the money. The pay starts out low and, although it then doubles as experience and effectiveness increase, it also tops out at a relatively low ceiling given the level of responsibility and the number of degrees earned by most teachers.

No, teachers, I feel quite safe in generalizing, had less mercenary and more altruistic motives for going into their field. While it is possible that low pay can discourage and disaffect them, it does not logically follow that higher pay will energize and encourage them. Human motivation is simply not that one-dimensional. Once we get past a certain level of daily subsistence, we are much more satisfied by the intrinsic rewards of work — doing something well, making a real difference, growing in expertise, feeling useful and productive — than by how much we are paid for it. That is why so many materialistic Americans reach mid-life thinking “Is that all there is?” despite having reached their goals for acquiring all kinds of expensive stuff. The notion that more money will result in better teaching is insulting because it assumes teachers are both lazy and materialistic.

And now it has been proven wrong, as well.

The National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University (funded by a $10M grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education) employs “specialists in social and behavioral science, statistical analysis, economic theory, and policy analysis” to conduct “randomized field trials and evaluations of existing pay-for-performance programs” in public education. The report on one such study, the Project on Incentives in Teaching, or POINT, was released last week. This five-year study and analysis of a three-year randomized trial examined the effects on student outcomes of paying eligible Nashville teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 per year for increasing their students’ scores on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests.

The bottom line? “We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no.

This does not mean that teachers should not be paid more, but it should cause us to reconsider the simplistic pay-for-test-scores plans. If we really want to apply business principles to the improvement of public education, we should go back to W. Edwards Deming, who considered pay for performance one of the “Seven Deadly Diseases.” Instead, Deming suggests a continuous cycle of collaborative planning, implementation, evaluation of results, and adaptation of the plan in order to truly change an organization. And, imagine what being treated like professionals in this way would do for teacher morale and motivation!

May 2011 addition: you have got to see this animation summarizing Dan Pink’s Drive work on motivation and incentives!