Increased Performance

A while back i wrote a post about The Value of Teachers, where I tried to make the point that good teachers don’t come from better salaries and standardized teacher evaluation systems, they come from a positive and innovative environment where people are excited to foster learning in students.

Recently I saw this post from Staffroom HQ that linked to a speech made by Dan Pink called “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.” I’ll include the video at the bottom of this page. Pink discusses various studies where workers were given monetary incentives to do work. In physical/mechanical tasks the more you were paid the harder you worked. But when even rudimentary cognitive work was required, a larger reward lead to lower performance. Crazy, right??

So what incentives are needed to foster increased performance in cognitive tasks? They discovered that higher performance happened when workers experienced  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Pink was able to say more eloquently and factually what I’ve been thinking for the past year in regards to gaining “better” teachers.  Many people seem to think the best way to see increased teacher performance is to create a standardized evaluation system. This system can rely on student standardized test scores. People like Michelle Rhee would like to see evaluations lead to higher pay for those with good results. I’m not naive, I also think teachers must be evaluated in some way, they have the serious responsibility of educating our children and they must be held accountable for it. But this standardized way of evaluating teacher and student performance is actually hindering performance for both parties involved.

Higher teacher salaries are not going to increase performance. (Although it is a real issue that some teachers don’t get paid enough.) An environment with more freedom to customize lessons to the interest of the teacher or students would increase performance (Autonomy). If teachers were  given time and partial stipends to attend professional development workshops or enroll in a courses about topics in their content area, we would see increased performance (Mastery). Respect from families, administrators and the general public would help increase teacher performance (Purpose).

One little anecdote: foursquare has hackathons every once in  a while where developers drink beer, work together and hack away over the course of the weekend. At the end of the weekend the hackers have created games, websites and other cool things using the foursquare API. Some of these things probably suck. Others are silly and will never amount to a profit making product, but they are still really fun. Timehop, a viable startup, was born out of a foursquare hackathon, then called 4 Square & 7 Years Ago. The people at these hackathons are smart and creative, and they have been given the autonomy to work on whatever they want. The result: a large amount of innovation and improvement in the short period of 48 hours. They don’t get paid in any form other than beer and food. Yet they work hard and create great stuff.

I’m fully aware that taking this and transforming it into an activity that would work at a public K-12 school may be difficult. Startups are small, private and there isn’t much at stake for the general public if they fail. Public schools are enormous, funded by tax payer dollars, and the future of our country is at stake when they fail. But as Dan Pink has showed us, money and standardization are NOT going to improve teacher performance. So we need to figure out what will. (And although it wouldn’t sit well with most, I personally love the mental image of teachers drinking beer and staying up all weekend creating new and innovative teaching strategies.)

Here’s the Dan Pink talk:


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