The Other Holy Grail – Motivation

Douglas McGregor

When we think of an organization’s success, we tend to think of how well it meets its goals.  In the business world, this is often done through profit targets; in schools, through large-scale testing initiatives like, in Ontario, the EQAO.  As I’ve written before, I’m in favour of these large-scale data exercises because I think they point us in the areas that need improvement.  But one thing they don’t do is show us how to improve – at least, not exactly. 

“Not exactly” because school improvement might take a variety of efforts – it might mean more skilled teachers, smaller classes, better conditions for teachers, more books in schools, more computers in schools, even a fairer distribution of wealth within society.  Yet when we share stories about important teachers in our lives, ones who seem, looking back, to have made a difference, it is rarely ever some technical element like those in the list above.  Usually, people talk about great teachers using words like ‘passion,’ ‘commitment,’ and ‘dedication’ – decidedly emotional words.  Words that evoke, above all other concerns, a sense of motivation on the part of the teacher.

A recent Globe and Mail article by Anne Dranitsaris touches on these issues:

“The assumption that people are naturally unmotivated has created a large market for books, videos and training workshops for leaders. They end up working harder at trying to keep their people motivated than their employees do. In the long run they end up fostering dependence and a sense of entitlement in those employees, who come to rely on their leaders to tell them what to do and how they should feel about their work…. How employees feel about themselves at work is critical to their capacity to direct their energy toward achieving the goals of the company. When leaders fail to understand this they can inadvertently, unconsciously or unwittingly end up demotivating their employees.”

It echoes what Douglas McGregor, professor at MIT, wrote 51 years ago in his influential book The Human Side of Enterprise: “Authority, as a means of influence, is certainly not useless, but for many purposes it is less appropriate  than persuasion or professional help.  Exclusive reliance upon authority encourages countermeasures, minimal performance, even open rebellion.  The dependence – as in the case of the adolescent in the family – is simply not great enough to guarantee compliance.”

McGregor argues that we are currently using what he calls Theory X to manage people. The assumptions of Theory X:
1. The average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if he can.
2. Because of this human characteristic of dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, threatened with punishment to get them to put forth adequate effort toward the achievement of organizational objectives.
3. The average human being prefers to be directed, wishes to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, wants security above all.

And what we should be doing is ‘integrating’ people’s human side into their work, something he calls Theory Y.  This theory’s assumptions:
1. The expenditure of physical or mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.
2. External control and the threat of punishment are not the only means for bringing about effort toward organizational objectives.  Man will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service to objectives to which he is committed.
3. Commitment to objectives is a function or the rewards associated with their achievement. The most significant of such rewards, e.g., the satisfaction of ego and self-actualization needs, can be direct products of effort directed toward organizational objectives.
4. The average human being learns, under proper conditions, not only to accept but to seek responsibility.
5. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
6. Under the conditions of modern industrial life, the intellectual potentialities of the average human being are only partially utilized.

These same concerns apply equally well to the student.  A motivated student will achieve far more than one who isn’t (in fact, what, if anything, can we achieve with a student who is so alienated he or she refuses to learn?).  And, merely exhorting them to be motivated probably has the opposite effect to the one intended.  We can apply Theory Y ideas to our students, as well – by appealing to their desire to contribute.  The oldest trick in the book – take the student in your class who likes to act out and give him or her a responsibility.  Recall Bart Simpson as the hall monitor…

To Each According to His Needs, or Does the Victor get the Spoils?

In many, but not all, professions, pay is based on performance.  This is especially true in sales where salespeople who exceed their targets get rewarded with large bonuses.  In other fields, too, performance drives compensation: law, corporate management, and sports tend to stick out in our minds.These careers have the advantage of numbers on their side: relatively easy-to-comprehend factors can be assembled to understand the productivity of a salesperson, for example.  Lawyers have billable hours.  CEOs have targets assigned by the board.  Athletes have statistics.  To the degree that someone reaches these targets we can say he or she has done good work.  And then the compensation can increase.

Such a pay model assumes that we are motivated by compensation above most other factors.  And it assumes a certain degree of control over our work.  And for many people in many fields, it seems to work.  Do a great job, get lots of money; don’t do a great job, get less money.

Imagine applying the thinking to teachers.  Could we achieve the kinds of reforms demanded for generations (better schools) by simply changing the compensation arrangement?

Currently, most teachers across the western world earn a salary based on years in the profession, with a factor for level of education (Bachelor of Arts + Bachelor of Education + Years in Profession = Pay).  Which means that our pay isn’t directly tied to how well we do the job.  Teaching has resisted market measures like merit pay because of the highly unionized nature of the workforce.  But with more money than ever being spent on schooling, and (in some areas) mediocre results, the idea has been gaining momentum lately.

President Obama has repeatedly endorsed merit pay for teachers.  Laura Meckler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted him as saying early in his presidency: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”  I imagine most North Americans would agree with this statement.

Some do disagree, though.  One of my teachers, Prof. Ben Levin, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, argues that merit pay will not achieve the kinds of results hopeful conservative policy-makers want it to.  He gives eight reasons:
1. Very few people anywhere in the labour force are paid on the basis of measured outcomes
2. No other profession is paid on the basis of measured client outcomes
3. Most teachers oppose such schemes
4. Pay based on student achievement is highly likely to lead to displacement of other important education purposes and goals
5. There is no consensus on what the measures of merit should be
6. The measurement of merit in teaching inevitably involves a degree of error
7. The details of merit pay schemes vary widely, yet these details have great impact on how such plans are received and their effects on teachers and schools
8. Merit pay schemes in education have a long record of failure
(For the complete essay, click here)

Ben was also in a debate last week with Peter Cowley of the Fraser Institute (a conservative think-tank in favour of merit pay and other market measures for education).  It aired on CBC’s Sunday Edition.  Click here to listen to the entire debate.

Your Child Left Behind

There hasn’t ever been a time, I imagine, when parents didn’t care about education – at least, in the commonsense understanding of the term.  As long ago as 2500 years ago in ancient Athens, teachers could often make a good living instructing the children of prominent Athenians in the arts of rhetoric. In that society, there was a powerful and fruitful connection between power and eloquence; the first radical democracy prized oratory, and those who could teach it came from far and wide.  We have (mostly) lost our love of oratory, but retained our desire to see our children flourish economically – and see more clearly than ever the connection between education and economic competition.

Today’s middle class is not entirely different – and why should they be?  Academic performance is commonly understood as being a great predictor (perhaps the great predictor) of economic success in adult life.  And while we all know people who didn’t succeed in school but went on to have fabulously successful business careers, the emphasis on university degrees (and postgraduate degrees, increasingly) means that such stories are the exception not the rule.

At a macro level, there is an increasing anxiety that our privileged position in the west will be usurped by nations whose youngsters perform better academically.  Whether it is true or not, the competition for jobs appears global – and nations like China appear on the cusp of upsetting the western hegemony, anchored by the US, that has so benefited the Atlantic civilization.

A piece by Amanda Ripley in a recent Atlantic Monthly illustrates the problem with some powerful data from the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) collected by the OECD:

We’ve known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?
Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.

And for a President looking to demonstrate the power of a centrist government at remaking American society, education is an obvious place to start.

Early last year, President Obama reminded Congress, “The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” This September, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, visiting a local school on the first day of classes, mentioned Obama’s warning and smugly took note of the scoreboard: “Well,” he said, “we are out-teaching them today.”

So, what is the US to do? And what is Ripley’s solution?  When explaining the best-performing US state on the test, she argues for accountability.
Massachusetts, in other words, began demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building. Obvious though it may seem, it’s an idea that remains sacrilegious in many U.S. schools, despite the clumsy advances of No Child Left Behind. Instead, we still fixate on inputs—such as how much money we are pouring into the system or how small our class sizes are—and wind up with little to show for it. Since the early 1970s, we’ve doubled the amount of money we spend per pupil nationwide, but our high-schoolers’ reading and math scores have barely budged.

And while it is hard to disagree with that, demanding accountability is neither new (at least not in Ontario) nor entirely foolproof.  What do we mean when we say “meaningful outcomes”?  And if our anxiety is caused by the global standardized test data, we in Ontario should not be overly proud: while Canada did place higher than the US, it is still well below the leaders.  As Kate Hammer in the Globe and Mail wrote, responding to the data: “After nearly a decade of leading international test scores in reading, writing and mathematics, Canada is finding that it’s no longer lonely at the top. Korea and China are leaving us in the chalk dust while our smaller provinces are dragging down the scores.”

This Blog Post Brought to You by Pepsi

I an era of financial calamities like our own, administrators are always looking for ways to cut costs.  In Los Angeles, a city in a state hurt hard by the Great Recession, they have had to cut $1.5 billion from the city’s education budget – which represents about a quarter of all monies.

Aside from cutting costs, though – which invariably means massive layoffs and larger classes – you might, as a school-board administrator, consider selling the naming rights to school facilities.  Which is exactly what Jennifer Medina reports the LA school system is pondering.

“This is really our way to be responsive to that reality; we need to look for other sources of revenue,” said Melissa Infusino, the director of partnerships for the district. “As uncomfortable as it may be for folks, it’s less comfortable to get rid of programs or go through more layoffs.”

Good logic, as far as it goes.  But if, on the other hand, the sponsorship only generate $18 million – a number quoted in the article – it hardly seems worth it.

While some may argue that naming rights don’t impinge on the purpose or the mandate of the building in question, I would argue that whenever a public building is sponsored something is lost.  As citizens, we participate less somehow when corporations have their names on what is by all rights a public structure.  Before corporate sponsorship, it used to be “all of ours,” equally, rich and poor – and now the sign reminds us that we are only here out of Pepsi’s beneficence.

Is that worth $18 million?  Or speaking in relative terms, would allow Nike to put a six-foot sign above the door to your house for $100?

School Choice – Should Markets Know Better?

Robert Heilbroner, the distinguished economist, had in an early section of his classic primer on economics, The Making of Economic Society, a thought experiment where he asked readers to imagine the improbability of the power of the market. He points out that if we were to imagine setting up our own society, a command economy would seem far more useful than a market. A king ordering around his subjects and directing their efforts with care and precision would seem to be the best way to ensure everyone had enough food to eat and a house to live in and clothes to wear.

Letting a market, where no one explicitly directs the efforts of any individuals, provide for the needs of the community seems absurd. Imagine: no one tells anyone how much food to grow, or what kinds; how many houses to build; the clothes to make. And yet, this is exactly how our markets work. No one dictates production, and yet there is enough for all. (The distribution of goods is another matter, of course.) More than that, the products from a market system are better than if they had been directed by a king. The market, for all its ills, has been the most powerful mechanism for increased production of higher-quality, cost-effective goods.

If education is a good, then why not apply market principles to it? Why not allow the market to change schools for the better? We could banish the king and letting the consumers drive changes. Let consumers choose schools, and the market will build better schools.

Except that, in places where school choice has been used, the results are mixed and modest at best. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, points out that “The theory sounds great, but evidence confirming it has been hard to find. Julie Cullen and Brian Jacob, my good friends and co-authors, haven’t done school choice proponents any favors with their latest paper (the full version of which can be found here). Using kindergarten lottery outcomes that determine which kids get into the most sought-after schools, they are able to compare the outcomes of those who win the lottery versus those who lose. The students who win the lotteries go to “better” schools and have “better” peers, but they don’t have better outcomes.”

In a more recent article in National Affairs, Frederick M. Hess sums it up nicely: “It would seem, then, that school choice “works” in some respects and in some instances — but that choice alone could never work as well as many of its champions have expected, and promised. It is time for those who would like to transform America’s schools to let go of the dream that choice by itself is any kind of ‘solution.’”

Still, part of me does have a fondness for the market solution. Of course, not all goods are sensitive to market pressures – at least not in the right way. Medicine, for example, appears to work better for most with a partially-command approach. But I still wonder: if all parents could choose freely, even across class lines, wouldn’t schools adopt better practices? And where better practices were unclear, wouldn’t choice allow for greater clarity? Don’t markets sometimes show us what we don’t know?

Teacher Hiring?

I have only ever worked in a private school.  This isn’t by intention; though most would imagine that I would prefer the privileges of private school, the truth is that the public system has never been interested in hiring me.  Six years into a teaching career, three university degrees and a fourth under way, six 100-hour-plus additional qualification courses, and the public system is still closed to me.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like private schools.  The school I started my career with, and the one I am starting a new position at this month, are wonderful schools with great programs, and looking back I wouldn’t change the past six years for anything.  But it is to say two things: part of the reason these (private) schools work well is that teachers could be – and sometimes were – fired; and two, if the public systems across the continent are to achieve greatness, they need to adopt the nimble approach of private schools – that is to say, the practice of any organization committed to success where hiring and firing decisions are based on competence, and competence alone.

There are three possible reasons the public system doesn’t hire people like me – or nearly all of my teacher friends who, like me, can only find work in private schools.  It could be that we are weak candidates, or that we present poorly on our CVs or in interviews – this remains an open possibility.  Second, it could be that those interviewing don’t know how to pick good candidates out of the pile.  But I think the third possibility is most likely: public boards are so burdened with bureaucracy and unionism that hiring decisions are often driven not by applicant quality, but by inflexible and unworkable set of practices designed for the needs of the organization, not student success.

The hiring process in the Toronto District School Board illustrates the point.  While much of what follows is conjecture, there are a set of agreed upon facts.  Any teacher wishing to be hired for the fall needs to apply the previous winter.  Exactly when isn’t clear – the TDSB website encourages applications from December until an indeterminate point, but there are lots of rumours about secret deadlines earlier in the year.  The application is on-line, and fairly basic: which degrees are possessed, what additional qualifications have been earned, and the like.  If those in charge of hiring (often former teachers who have moved up the board hierarchy) choose to, they invite applicants to a board interview.  At the interview, applicants are asked five questions – and the questions are easily guessed at through a Google search.   In order to keep the interviews standard (and fair, goes the logic), interviewers are not allowed to ask follow-up questions, but instead largely check-off a set of ‘look-fors’ – sadly, sometimes not more than educational buzzwords strung together.  You cannot leave any supplementary paperwork, like letters of reference, copies of a teaching portfolio, or even a sample lesson plan.  In fact, to remain impartial, the interviewers do not have a resume in front of them.  If against all odds you manage to impress during the interview, you are placed on the eligible-to-hire list.

And what a list it is. On it sit the collected hopefuls of the fourth largest school board in North America, and a district with two teaching faculties over-producing teachers.  There are rumours that there are divisions within the list between those ‘recommended’ and those ‘strongly’ so, but no evidence of this is available on the board’s website.  Principals determine staffing needs sometime in the late spring, and begin to fill vacancies.  First, openings are available only to those currently in the board.  And finally, when the leftover spots are still leftover, principals access a list of candidates who are ‘eligible-to-hire.’  The board maintains that those on the list could be called for one last school-lever interview starting in June – but it seems most common to get calls much later, even well into the fall term.  And by the time the principal interviews the candidate for the school-level job, the situation is often desperate and nearly anyone will do; teachers are frequently hired mere days before they are expected to teach.

The process, then, is at least six months long, and often much longer.   And at the end of it, questions remain: how can the best candidates emerge from such a slow process, on which is biased towards existing union membership, and relies primarily not on the judgment of the person legally responsible for the program of any school, the principal, but an educational Russian doll of sets of committees within committees?

Earlier I had argued there are three reasons the public board has never seen fit to hire people like me and my teacher friends, but there will be those arguing there is a fourth: they will say that as part of a demographic crisis in education there are fewer children, and therefore fewer jobs.  Public boards aren’t hiring, they say.  Doubtlessly true, but I would argue that with so many underperforming teachers, surely there are some on the unemployment rolls who would be better in the classroom than those with tenure.  And the argument against reform on the basis that ‘unionism prevents us’ is hardly a response.  If education is important, clever politicians and passionate educators must find ways around any impediment to the overall success and dynamism of our education system.  If we don’t change (some of) the teachers, any talk about reforming our education system is mostly air.

Whither the School Board?

The Globe and Mail recently reported on a move on the part of provincial governments in Canada to reduce or eliminate the local school board.  The article quotes many who feel the age of the board has passed, and that the money saved by doing away with that level of school governance would free up more dollars for the classroom.  They draw on US examples where the mayor takes on responsibility for local control of education.

While efficiency is sorely needed in education, I am skeptical of the logic here.  If the plan has any hope of real savings, positions would need to be reduced or eliminated.  But the article acknowledges that leading option is to merely transfer the duties (and staff?) to the budgets of local governments – despite the dismal fortunes of cities. While we can all find examples of wasted administration in school boards, can we not find equally galling examples of waste in local or federal politics?

One question not explored in the article is the possible fate of boards as administrative centers.  And here I can see a powerful case in favour of boards and their initiatives.  While the provinces have been taking a larger role in salary bargaining, provinces like Ontario have moved towards a standard provincial funding model, and educational standards have always been provincial, there are still many school boards who, besides taking democratic input from the public, spearhead new initiatives, lead educational change, and generally push towards educational reform – in addition to providing the general oversight of the operations of local schools.

In a board-less world, would there exist local directors of education, and their staff of superintendents and administrative support?  If so, where are the savings coming from?  The actual trustee costs are quite tiny compared to the overall education budget, and certainly smaller than the board administrators.  If not, if the current drive means to reduce or eliminate not just trustees but also board staff, how would the province administer education, its second-largest funding commitment?  Simply transferring the costs to a different level of government, the city, hardly saves tax dollars, and more centralization hardly seems merited in an already highly-centralized system.

The only likely reduction is local democratic input, and given the (relatively) small cost of maintaining that local democracy, it is hard to see the pressing case for reform. When we compare the role of education in our lives to the roles of other government services, say, medicine, it becomes obvious that there is no government service that so dominates the lives of families.  If we are to insist that parents send their children to school, we ought to provide them a simple chance to have their voices heard.