Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching Tony Danza

Tony's got it kinda right but mostly wrong.

His comment about needing more motivated students is not incorrect, but it is grossly misleading.

You see, I could care less how motivated my students or my three year old daughter are. What I care about is how their motivated. Motivation is not this single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated than you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something or not do something based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. There's a big difference between a teacher who teaches because she wants to artfully guide children to becoming better people, and the teacher who teaches for the summer holidays.

But that's not even the catchy part - the real catch is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you pry on a student's extrinsic motivation by bribing them with grades or threatening them with detention, you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for whatever it is you want them to do shrivels.

What's true for kids is equally true for adult's.

When you pry on a teacher's extrinsic motivation by bribing them with merit pay to achieve higher test scores, you run the risk of two nasty unintended consequences. Firstly, you risk growing a teacher's extrinsic motivation for money while their intrinsic love for educating children may diminish; secondly, you run the risk of succumbing to Campbell's Law - the more a social indicator (test scores) are used for social decision making (merit pay), the greater the chance of corruption. In other words, under enough high-stakes pressure, teachers will make test scores rise but you won't want to know how they did it.

Ask any teacher in the world and you'll hear about a plethora of students who have become grade grubbers with an insatiable appetite for the honors roll, and you'll also hear about a healthy population of kids who physically attend school, but academically dropped out years ago; these kids don't care about the promise of a high grade or the threat of a low grade. I fear that when Tony Danza says "we need more motivated students" he really means we need more kids like the former and less of the latter. But if we really want to address the motivation problem in education, we need not concern ourselves with how many kids get A's or even want A's; rather, we should be truly outraged that most members of our species have come to believe that getting A's is the whole point of school.

Alfie Kohn aptly points out that the use of traditional letter or number grades is reliably associated with three unintended consequences:

First, students tend to lose interest in whatever they’re learning. As motivation to get good grades goes up, motivation to explore ideas tends to go down. Second, students try to avoid challenging tasks whenever possible. More difficult assignments, after all, would be seen as an impediment to getting a top grade. Finally, the quality of students’ thinking is less impressive. One study after another shows that creativity and even long-term recall of facts are adversely affected by the use of traditional grades.

Those like Tony Danza who support merit pay fall into two more cancerous assumptions. Firstly, they assume that the current testing and tougher standards regime works and that the system's failure is a matter of poor implementation (mostly because of those damn teachers). Secondly, they assume that teachers are simply not motivated enough on their own and require a little cold hard cash to get their butt's in gear. Diane Ravitch summarizes this assumption up well:

Note that they assume that most people—in this case, teachers—are lazy and need a promise of dollars to be incentivized to get higher scores for their students. It never seems to occur to them that many people are doing their best (think people who play sports, always striving to do their best without any expectation of payment) and continue to do so because of intrinsic rewards or because of an innate desire to serve others. Teachers should certainly be well compensated, but not many enter the classroom with money as their primary motivation.

The idea that we simply need better incentives for teachers (or students, for that matter) to do a better job lends itself well to the Old School - which I've maintained is not a place but a state of mind that thinks very little of the mind. If you listen to Danza carefully, he makes the same assumption, as most education defomers do, that merit pay and teacher evaluation are one and the same.

Danza strikes a disturbing chord when he labels something as inept as merit pay as inherently American. Research has shown that today's test and punish accountability fad is alienating and marginalizing the very children that it hoped not to leave behind. Yet, when it comes to motivation, teacher evaluation and pedagogy, it seems like "common sense" and the "American Way" are willingly used by education deformers to trump thoughtful analysis.

Look, Tony Danza is not evil. I can imagine how good his intentions really are. But like most education deformers, he is grossly misinformed. So how do we become better informed?

It's simple really.

We would never go to our chiropractor for advice on how to pour the concrete foundation for our home, so why would we ever care what Tony Danza, Opera Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan have to say about education?

They are not educators!

If you really want to become informed about real learning and progressive education, then you can start by familiarizing yourself with these educators:


  1. There are educators who support new compensation models that recognize leadership roles and responsibilities and excellence in the profession. Merit pay, as defined by tying teacher pay to single test scores, does not benefit teachers or students, but it is not the only option for compensating educators in new ways.

    The CLASS Project in Oregon give educators the time and resources to design models that work in their communities. These educators design systems that integrate new career paths, relevant professional development and effective performance evaluation with new compensation models. I invite you to hear from the educators themselves: http://educators4reform.org/what-is-class/

  2. Why would someone with a career as a teacher want a new career path? I don't get it.

  3. So only people who are k-12 teachers could possibly have any insight into education? FYI, Michelle Ree taught for three years.

    Nothing to be learned from researchers? You've seemed happy to reference their work whenever it supports your point of view.

    I've learned some interesting things on this blog, but I'd like it a lot more if you toned down the rhetoric.

    Perhaps you could tell us what the ideal teacher compensation system would be. How and why should it be different from other professions?


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