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The Meta-Work Trap: The Downside of a "Laser-Like Focus on Student Achievement"

How can educational leaders make the greatest difference for students? If you're not the one who actually does the teaching, what can you do to ensure that good things happen in your school or district?

I've been thinking about this since I came across Larry Cuban's incisive post "Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?"

I think the answer to his question is yes—sometimes—but it depends on the particular set of challenges that the superintendent faces. In other words, it depends on what's wrong in the district and what needs to be done about it. And sometimes trying to raise test scores is the wrong goal.

Sometimes having a "laser-like focus on student achievement"—Google the phrase and you'll see tons of examples—is not the best approach.

If your district has been inflating scores for years by monkeying with enrollment and student classification like they were doing in El Paso, raising scores further is the wrong goal.

If your district has high scores already, but is facing a major budget crisis and a lack of public confidence, raising test scores is the wrong goal.

If your district is crippled by incompetence in key positions, focusing on student achievement isn't going to help.

Every school district in America faces a unique set of challenges, and the leader's job is to be responsible for everything while maintaining a focus on a manageably small set of problems. When the big problems are under control and the leader's competence is clear, the leader has a platform from which to share a compelling vision.

Being a superintendent is a huge job, but I think it starts with two basic responsibilities.

First, solve problems. No one cares where we're going if the car's on fire.

Second, set the vision and motivate your team. People only perform at high levels when the destination and the route are clear.

When people use the word "bureaucrats" to talk about education administrators, they are usually referring to people who do neither of these things, but instead focus on meta-work that is only marginally related to the core purpose of the organization, and is not particularly useful to anyone.

Why is solving problems and motivating staff toward a vision so important? What about strategic plans, five-year goals, data systems, departmental reorganizations, and all of the myriad other priorities superintendents are told to worry about?

The truth is, most of this doesn't matter to front-line educators or students, because it doesn't help them do their core work, and it doesn't inspire them to do better.

Two-factor theory, pioneered by psychologist Frederick Herzberg, identifies both motivational and de-motivational factors in the workplace, and suggests that these two sets of factors operate somewhat independently of each other.

Demotivational factors—what Herzberg called "hygiene" factors—need to be dealt with swiftly and effectively. If buildings are falling into disrepair, if paychecks aren't arriving on time, if the hiring process gets bogged down in HR—these are killers of motivation and efficacy. Effective superintendents recognize these problems and task their direct reports with ensuring that they are quickly handled.

Motivational factors are not merely the opposite of the demotivational factors. People aren't fulfilled when they get a paycheck and work in a structurally sound building; such conditions are necessary but not sufficient. Motivational factors include achievement, recognition, intrinsically fulfilling work, and the opportunity to grow.

Two-factor theory leads me to the conclusion that having a "laser-like focus on student achievement" is not necessarily a good idea for superintendents. Why? Because superintendents do not actually teach students. Teachers should certainly have a laser-like focus on student achievement, and principals should take responsibility for such focus at the school level.

But when superintendents and other district administrators try to focus solely student learning, they inevitably start engaging in meta-work that prevents district staff from solving problems that need to be solved.

A classic scenario unfolds like this:
Superintendent: "We need to have a laser-like focus on student achievement."

Senior staff: "Yes, so we need to have a robust progress-monitoring system in place."

Slightly less senior staff: "We don't have the data systems to do that kind of progress monitoring."

Superintendent: "Then our top priority is getting a new data system online ASAP."

The entire central office then gets to work planning, procuring, and implementing a new data system. Principals are informed, and teachers barely know anything is happening, but the entire district office stays busy for months. No problems facing teachers are solved, and no one is motivated to grow and achieve. The hygiene factors don't change, and the motivational factors don't change.

Need another example? Ask me some time about the 60+ page booklet of "teaching and learning standards" that I received in 2004 after thousands of person-hours of work at my district's central office.

What's missing from this type of pointless activity? Solving problems for front-line educators, and helping them grow and achieve as professionals. Most meta-work that happens in district offices doesn't do this. The more "strategic" it is, the less likely it is to have any impact on teachers and students.

When a superintendent has a compelling vision for staff growth and achievement, and when distractions and problems have been bulldozed out of the way, teachers and administrators will rise to the challenge and have a laser-like focus on learning. And if focused, motivated professionals getting better at what they do won't raise student achievement, what will?

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