Some preliminary thoughts on designing for teacher motivation

A recent Planet Money piece from NPR (thank you friend and former camper Ryan Spinner for pointing it out) talks about value added measurement of teachers. The reporters calculate the supposed value of a good teacher. It’s very clever and suggests good teachers should be getting paid $500,000 a year which sounds great to me.

I actually think the story, however, while it deals in some of the complexities, doesn’t even begin to address some of the hardest parts of teacher valuation or its flip side, teacher motivation–especially not at a new, independently managed school level (admittedly, this is my bias).

(I also have been told by some very smart statisticians that I trust, that much of the value added work currently being done in schools should not yet to be considered to be an accurate or statistically sound measure of performance, although it may come to be in the future).

The REAL School design team has been puzzling over teacher pay, teacher motivation, and teacher equity since our inception. We care deeply that teachers are empowered and that they are able to take leadership within the school and the broader communities in which the school exists. We have designed structures for supporting and growing the leadership capacity of our teachers in the same ways we will for our students and community members.

We want staff members who, because they are motivated, or energetic, or they are particularly committed to some part of our school, can work harder than their peers. At the same time, we want staff members who live healthy, balanced lives and can bring balance and mindfulness to the culture of our school and model it for our students. We want to account for the value added by all forms of teacher participation.

We will require all teachers to be good teachers, bad teachers should not be allowed to teach, but being a good teacher may mean more than teaching your classes ably and effectively. Solving the enormous variety of challenges faced daily in any school, even in the context of the classroom, requires more than just delivery of classroom instruction. This is true even at the most tightly managed schools where teachers really do focus on their practice and little else and particularly true in young schools.

Schools need teachers to participate in a variety of ways beyond their classroom instruction–for example: student care, parent communication, curriculum design, supporting other teachers, responding to interventions, leading after school activities, hallway monitoring, decision-making, data-analysis, systems design, etc. Some teachers have greater capacity in some of these areas than others so the question of “value added” cannot be so simple as even the best single classroom test score analysis.

A teacher has value in diffuse and far-reaching ways. Teachers impact school culture and school culture impacts a wide array of school norms including members’ capacity to work hard. I believe that teacher evaluation, incentives, and motivation are first and foremost matters of school culture.

At the REAL Schools, we do not want to privilege or overly encourage competition among teachers or students for that matter, collaboration is one of our core values. Even if something like performance based pay raises, for example, were based on the best test-based value-added statistics, it still might have a profound negative net cultural impact.

Our design must account for a teacher’s value in ways that ensure the teacher will grow and learn and will continue to participate in and lead the school in matters close to each teacher’s passions and concerns.


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