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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


Updated: Mar 22, 2018

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals. High-performing education systems are driven by policies and practices that support excellence in teaching and in school leadership. The top countries in international comparisons support the recruitment, development, rewarding and retaining of effective teachers and principals. It’s never been the America way.

At least not when it comes to education. In Lessons from PISA for the United States (2010), researchers from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted that corporations, professional partnerships, national militaries and national governments know that they have to pay attention to how the pool is established from which they recruit; how they recruit; how they select their staff; the kind of initial training their recruits get before they present themselves for employment; how they mentor new recruits and induct them into their service; what kind of continuing training they get; how their compensation is structured; how they reward their best performers and how they either improve the performance of those who are struggling or get rid of them; and how they provide opportunities for the best performers to acquire more status and responsibility.

If education is indeed “the bright hope for entry of the poor and oppressed into the mainstream of American society” (Serrano I) and serves such a “distinctive and priceless function” that the Supreme Court has declared it to be a fundamental right guaranteed by the California Constitution, than it stands to reason that we can create an education system that gives every child a passionate, motivating and effective teacher - and gives effective teachers the respect and rewarding careers they deserve (assumes compensation adequate and fair).

Well, we haven’t been able to, at least not universally. Certainly pockets of success are evident across the state and country. But for the students who most need effective teachers, we have largely failed. So much so that in Beatriz Vergara, et al. v. California (June 24, 2015), plaintiffs proved at trial, with overwhelming evidence, that the Challenged Statutes (Permanent Employment Statute; Dismissal Statutes; and Last-In, First-Out) result in substantial and unjustified inequalities, depriving unfortunate California students of the educational opportunities guaranteed to them by the California Constitution.

In the absence of a legislative lever to hoist an education system above its current level, the most common lever to support the argument that an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals has been charter, magnet, and other choice school options.

Twenty-three years after Minnesota enacted the nation’s first public charter school law, a pillar of the public charter schools movement has been to innovate in exchange for a higher level of accountability, often defined by no tenure, seniority preference or probationary period for new teachers. Teachers work under the protection of just cause discipline and dismissal, common in the private sector.

Michael Fullan (2011) has written extensively about the topic of levers. He refers to them as drivers. Drivers are policy and strategy levers that have the least and best chance of driving successful reform. He defines a ‘wrong driver’ as a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students. The context for his analysis is whole system reform -100% of the system – a whole state, province, region or entire country. The Fullan Test suggests that the effectiveness of a ‘driver’ depends on whether it meets four specific criteria, in concert: (1) foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students; (2) engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning; (3) inspire collective or team work; and (4) affect 100% of teachers and students. One can argue that a legislative solution to the plaintiff’s argument in Vergara meets the four criteria.

Among the wrong drivers that have been costly is technology. Leveraging technology to increase student achievement has been a common practice for over twenty years. Yet it has never realized its promise to level the playing field. It failed the second criteria of the Fullan test: engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning. Leveraging technology effectively requires matching pedagogy and technology. For example, utilizing devices to formatively assess student understanding. Myriad applications exist that allow teachers to quickly check for understanding while recording the data to share in collaborate sessions with follow teachers in the interest of making instructional decisions moving forward. This example passes the Fullan test.

Other examples of matching pedagogy and technology are computer-based learning programs that differentiate curriculum and instruction to the individual learner such as Scholastic’s READ 180 or computer adapted software solutions such as ALEKS. YouTube, Kahn Academy, SHMOOP, BrightStar and other web-based programs are also examples of matching pedagogy and instruction, personalizing instruction and removing the time variable. Courses on-line also exist in a variety of platforms from the full course to blended models and everything in between. Flipped classrooms are yet another example of using technology as a lever. However, these examples do not pass the Fullan test and therefore will not drive a system towards successful reform.

School choice in the form of charter, magnet, and other choice school options do pass the Fullan test. Since teachers and students choose a charter or magnet school, it fosters intrinsic motivation of teachers and students. Since accountability is heightened educators and students engage in continuous improvement of instruction and learning. Heightened accountability also inspires teamwork, which ultimately affects 100% of teachers and students. Additionally, other schools improve to compete, as Milton Friedman predicted while studying education through an economic lens.

Recall that this essay revolved around evidence from international comparisons of education systems that found that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals. In recognition of mounting evidence that the carrot-and-stick method of motivation is ineffective in the social and private sector, money itself is not an effective driver to improve education systems. But as part of a fair compensation system that encourages improved performance and rewards status and responsibility, it can be totally effective. If you’re wondering what mounting evidence suggests that the carrot-and-stick method of motivation is ineffective, look no further than Daniel Pink’s work. Based on psychologist Karl Dunker’s Candle Problem (visit the problem). Pink claims that we must rethink how we run our businesses. Sam Glusberg used the Candle Problem to test motivation. The group that was offered the greatest reward took 3 1/2 minutes longer to solve the problem than less-rewarded groups. Contingent motivators not only don’t work – they may also do harm. Extrinsic v. intrinsic. Mismatch of what business knows and what business does was ok for 20th Century tasks – but not 21st Century tasks. It’s the peripheral where problems are solved (right brain creative sensibilities).

Everyone deals with their own version of the Candle Problem. A Federal Reserve sponsored study by Dana Reaaly at MIT offered three levels of rewards. When the task involved mechanical skills the system worked. But when the task was even rudimentarily complex the same reward system led to worst performance. London Economics School study did a meta analysis of 51 corporations and their reward system and concluded that the carrot-and-stick approach not only doesn’t work – it leads to worst performance. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. A new operating system for business.

Could it work in education? I would love to know your opinion.


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