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Accountability and Motivation

In my last blog, I described the devastating effect of test-based accountability and the current vogue of using value added methods for teacher evaluation on the profession of teaching.  But I also acknowledged the need for strong accountability systems in public education.  In our market economy, market forces punish the lazy, incompetent and inefficient by putting them out of business.  But public education is a monopoly, so we need other ways of ensuring that the people delivering the service have strong incentives to work hard and deliver high quality at a reasonable cost.

Before we start thinking about how to design more effective accountability systems, it might make some sense to think about the premises that underlie different approaches to accountability system design.

Let's start by examining the premises behind the prevailing system.  The push for test-based accountability systems to evaluate teachers have their origin in the work of a professor of agricultural statistics in Tennessee who discovered that differences in teacher quality as measured by analyses of student test scores over time accounted for very large differences in student performance.  Many observers concluded from this that policy should concentrate on using these statistical techniques to identify poor teachers and remove them from the teaching force.  At the same time, other observers, believing that the parents would choose effective schools for their children over ineffective schools if only they had information as to which schools are effective, pushed to use student test data to identify and publicly label schools based on the available test score data.  And, finally, policymakers passed the NCLB legislation, requiring the identification of schools as chronically underperforming and remedies involving the replacement of school leaders and staff, and, in extreme cases, closing schools down.

All of these accountability systems are essentially punitive in design and intent.  They threaten poor performing schools with public shaming, takeover and closure and poor performing individuals with public shaming and the loss of their jobs and livelihood.  The introduction of these policies was not accompanied by policies designed to improve the supply of highly qualified new teachers by making teaching a more attractive option for our most successful high school students—a key component of policy in the top-performing countries.  There is a lot of federal money available for training and professional development for teachers but no systematic federal strategy that I can discern for turning that money into systems of the kind top-performing countries use to support long-term, steady improvements in teachers' professional practice.  I conclude that policymakers have placed their bet on teacher evaluation, not to identify the needs of teachers for development, but to identify teachers who need to be dismissed from the service.  And, further, that the way to motivate school staff to work harder and more efficiently is to threaten them with public shame and the loss of their job.

In the early part of the 20th century, mass-production was destroying craftwork and replacing it with work on the assembly line.  The pride that motivated the craftsman to do his best was disappearing, too.  Managers rightly assumed that there was so little satisfaction in the work that workers would put in as little effort as possible unless they were coerced or offered monetary incentives to work hard and well at the assigned task.

In the 1960's, Douglas McGregor, a professor of management at MIT, posited two assumptions that managers could make about their workers.  Under McGregor's Theory X, managers could assume that workers are naturally lazy and will avoid work whenever possible unless they are supervised closely, told just what to do and offered explicit monetary incentives to do it.  Under McGregor's Theory Y, alternatively, managers could assume that most workers are naturally self-motivated and ambitious, want to take pride in their work and are capable of coming up with creative solutions to the problems they face on their own.  McGregor said that managers who embraced Theory Y would get much more out of their workers than those who embraced Theory X, especially if they acted on their theory by supporting and developing their workers.

In 1979, Peter Drucker, in The Age of Discontinuity, posited that the future belonged to companies and countries employing knowledge workers doing knowledge work.  He meant that companies and countries would succeed if they abandoned the mass production model in favor of a model based on the value that could be added by highly educated and trained staff.  But that highly educated and trained staff, he said, could not be managed like the blue-collar workers of the mass production age were managed.  Knowledge workers would fail unless they were managed like professionals: given a lot of autonomy, trusted to make the right decisions and supported rather than directed.

More recently, Dan Pink, in the best-selling book, Drive, sums up a lot of recent business school research by saying that the carrot and stick methods that were used to drive American workers a century ago won't work anymore.  Today's modern economy requires another approach, one based on autonomy of the worker, the desire of that worker for opportunities to really master his or her craft or profession and the need of modern workers for a sense of purpose and meaning in the work itself.  In short, Pink draws on four decades of research to argue that most workers are capable of much more and better work than they currently do, but they will be motivated to do it not by the old extrinsic rewards and punishments, but rather by the intrinsic motivation that comes from being treated like the true professionals described by Drucker.

From my perspective, the line of logic that runs from McGregor through Drucker to Pink applies with special force to American teachers.  The people who have embraced test-based accountability systems and value-added teacher evaluation are deeply invested in Theory X and in the methods of management that Theory X leads to.  That is a road to the past, not the future.  In my next blog, I will describe accountability systems for education consistent with the ideas of McGregor, Drucker and Pink—systems embraced by the countries with the best education records in the world.

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