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If we don’t know where we’re going, How do we know if we ever get there?

November 23, 2011

I saw my old college roommate in NYC and was struck again by how different schools are from most private sector organizations. My roommate builds big buildings and has about 20 people on his staff and reports to a boss who owns the whole company. There are relatively straightforward measures of success in this industry–sales of office space, meeting deadlines on construction projects, coming in under budget, etc. As such, it is pretty easy to keep everyone working for a common purpose–as he told me, everyone knows what their role is and what they are trying to achieve (and they can  be rewarded financially accordingly (0r punished and fired for not being in line with the organization’s program).

Contrast this with schools, where the traditional measures of success for teachers have historically been almost completely self defined (see Lortie, 1970 for a detailed explanation of this). On top of this, monetary compensation has nothing to do with performance, so the incentives for improved teaching quality or improved student results come down almost exclusively to personal motivation. While this may be enough inspiration for some, it assumes a level of altruism that I don’t think is that widely held.

Even if we believe many have this incredible self motivation to be better teachers, how would one even know if one was improving? And in a job where uncertainty about results is so prevalent and the link between inputs and outputs (between a teacher’s practice and impact on students) so tenuous, it is easy to see how a work culture can develop where the “rational” behavior is to not put a ton of energy into improving, where there is really no compelling reason to draw on colleagues for ideas, where you face challenges individually, where definitions of “professionalism” have more to do with meeting requirements, putting in hours, and doing required professional development substitute for the much more elusive effectiveness helping every child succeed in school.

Thus the language one often hears from teachers reflects a low sense of efficacy–“We’re working really hard” “Administrators have to give us more time for planning/meeting with colleagues/professional development, etc.” “You have to understand this student’s life outside school.” “I’m doing the best I can.” This is a language that reflects the lack of control teachers feel over results (and likewise, in most cases, over the conditions of their work). Again, this is not just a problem with teachers–it is problem inherent in the system where almost nothing about public schools is like any other organization in our society (or at least any in the private sector). Without a relatively clear, agreed upon sense of results, teachers can act as lone rangers, resistant to direction from administrators or even fellow teachers–in essence, one’s opinion of effective teaching can be as valid as any one else’s opinion. Critiques of a teacher raise the innate defensiveness so many of us hold, and efforts to change are all the more difficult to implement with so little levers to move teachers in a common direction.

It is not that I am a big capitalist or enamored with private enterprise (which hasn’t necessarily shined in glory over the past 5 years or so). But I do think there are certain truisms about human and organizational behavior that are impossible to ignore. Goodwill alone will not motivate all individuals, especially as the organization’s size increases. In the absence of channels of authority or clear measures of results, one of two scenarios is likely: one is a free lance workplace where everyone does their own thing (a picture of many schools in the pre-“standards” days) or a top-down autocracy trying (usually with much futility) to impose quality from above (notably ineffective over history).

The irony of this is that the one lever for pushing teachers to work together, to focus on common purposes, to force teachers to up their game is the pressure of test scores and AYP. Many, if not most, teachers rightly criticize the testing culture for narrowing the curriculum and limiting learning. But it is this more clear (albeit misplaced) measure of success that has given administrators some leverage for changed practices (unfortunately in pursuit of test scores rather than more worthy results relating to curiosity, problem solving, critical thinking, and application of knowledge).

Back to “the system,” if there are not any mechanisms where consumers (parents and kids) can express their preferences or needs related to education, then there needs to be all sorts of proxies to encourage and enforce quality. Unfortunately, this leads to imposition of standardized practices (often by policy makers who know little about education) and a uniformity that conflicts with the diversity of the children and families we serve. Granted, an open marketplace of choice schools has its problems too. But with the fundamental challenge facing of us of educating every child for success in the dynamic 21st century world, the layering of problems and supposed solutions in centrally controlled public schools as currently configured cannot come close to serving all our children.

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