Intrinsic motivation, not accountability, produces excellence
It’s June. Once again, the school year comes to an abrupt end. Comfortable routines evaporate, and other sources of stimulation take over. Children and teachers say goodbye, knowing the process will begin anew in the fall. Well-deserved vacations commence.
So much happens over the 180 days of a school year. Teachers—special guardians of our youth—provide safety and stimulation and create activities to inspire learning and cultivate the minds of young people. Children grow and change. When the seemingly endless year comes to a close, sincere words and gifts of gratitude make their way from children’s hands and hearts to their teachers.
As testing has permeated education, I worry about our teachers and their ability to recover over the summer. High-stakes testing takes a debilitating toll. When policymakers trusted teachers to support student learning—to ignite in their students the desire to know more and make sense of the world—teachers ended the school year spent from working to understand the unique puzzle of each child, creating engaging experiences and building and managing communities in their classrooms. Exhausted but proud of the work they had done, they were ready to reflect and recalibrate in preparation for the next year.
Today, support has been replaced by demand as the centerpiece of education policy. Testing—not the professional judgment of teachers—drives daily life in our schools. Learning is defined as an outcome and is reduced to acquiring discrete skills that can be measured on a test. People outside the classroom dictate what is taught and what constitutes success. Judgment replaces trust. Professionalism is ignored. Excitement, thinking, questioning and creating become afterthoughts.
This loss of teacher control is corrosive. It creates an end-of-year fatigue that is not easily replenished by gifts of affection or a couple of months outside the classroom. Some great teachers simply give up, because they cannot reconcile the policy with what they know is good for children. Others return resigned to their situation, feeling compromised and frustrated.
Those cherished end-of-year personal testaments delivered by parents and children to teachers are not powerful enough to overcome the externally imposed judgments that test results send to teachers. Nor can they overcome the negative dynamics created by this heavy-handed, top-down approach to education.
We can’t expect our teachers to continue to bring out the best in our children and free their minds to be excited about the world when only measurable performance defines success. The pressure to raise test scores is sapping teacher energy, morale and motivation. In his prescient 1999 critique of demand-driven school reform, The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn reviewed research that showed when teachers are told what and how to teach, they don’t do their best. The more teachers are pressured to make their students perform, the less well they actually perform.
People do their best when they love what they are doing, not when they are driven by external rewards or punishment. It is intrinsic motivation that leads to excellence. Current policy relies on external motivation to push teachers to raise test scores. Not only is it using the wrong lever, but test results are the wrong goal. When outside forces promoting the wrong goal drive teaching, Kohn observed, “It has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing.”
The legislature has it all wrong. Teachers and students can’t be their best in a system that confuses test scores with learning and uses accountability to motivate excellence. Policy that focuses on test results rather than supporting people to achieve is a dismal failure. It undercuts real learning. Educational outcomes do not improve.
Kohn further observed that when we judge a school on the basis of a standardized test score, we unwittingly help to make that school a little worse. Challenging an illegitimate system is one way we can reduce the damage.
I want our teachers to limp out the door at the end of the school year exhausted from using their talent to light a fire in every child and ready to make the next year even better. It won’t happen until we demand what is right for our children and their teachers.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.