Carrots & Sticks

What motivates educators?

        This is not just about merit pay.  This is about seriously thinking about why people follow or allow governments, corporations, and/or institutions of power to move ahead agendas that are fundamentally against education.  Mind you, I can replace the word “education,” in this sentence with any term that refers to the betterment of humanity—words like equity, tolerance, peace, green– but for the sake of this piece I will focus on education, which I believe encompasses all of these things since education is fundamentally about preparing for our collective future.  Peter DeWitt in his article in Education Week, What Does It Mean to Be an Educational Leader writes that “Educational leaders are really tired of following through on mandates that are not good for education.” I responded on Twitter: Change won’t happen unless every educator refuses to follow mandates that are not good for education. But even as I wrote that, I heard how simplistic I might sound, how someone from out in the field might say: It’s not easy to put your foot down.  It’s not easy to take a stand, not easy to stop doing what you’re being asked to do even though in your heart of hearts you know that ultimately you’re a cog in the wheel of massive destruction— and yes, I think it’s fair to say that most of us are implicated in the destruction of our public education system. If you are not saying “No!” and stopping what you do, completely and entirely, refusing to do something that you know is wrong, then you are following & allowing.  And for those of you who consider yourselves “diehard activists” and believe that you have to change the system from within, please, don’t fret.  I’m just making an argument, here.  Appease me.

          Susan Riley writes, “Maybe [the education system] needs a rest or it’s just overloaded?  Maybe it needs to ‘reboot?’” (Reimagining Your Parameters).  I think we need to take this notion a step further.  I think we need to really consider our role in changing things and understand what benefits we are receiving from keeping things moving in the direction its going.  I think we need to consider how the bigger machinery works and identify our very special role within it.  Why is it hard to say “No?”  Why is it hard to do the right thing, especially now, especially in the field of education?  We aretalking about a system with long roots in school reform that has historically had a devastating impact on the poor and people of color, aren’t we?  Yet, something is new, now, isn’t it?  It’s spreading.  The same greedy hands that have always manipulated education for the poor and predominantly brown schools in the US are digging into communities that have not had to deal with this onslaught of data driven decision making, high paid Harvard & TC consultants experimenting, researching & testing (why just about the whole body of research on whole school reform has been obtained on the backs of poor schools & students of color—Diane Ravitch knows that, ask her, she’s brilliant and she’s been documenting the machine for a billion years!), publishing company driven competition, private management & business bottom line thinking. 

          This is so much more than just merit pay.  Even though it’s necessary to understand motivation & the err of carrot & stick policies, read Diane’s blog: the New York Times Editorial is Clueless. Because it is precisely “the carrot & the stick” that is getting conscientious educators to squirm in their seats!  Educators who, according to Ravitch are professionals for Christs sake!— not donkeys.  She’s referring to the surprising truth about motivation: Once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill—higher rewards lead to poorer performance.

          Research says that when a task requires creative, critical or conceptual thinking—more money (the carrot) does not motivate for better performance.  Of course, employers have to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table, that is, so that they can think about the work, not money.  But after that, the following are the 3 key motivators for better performance: autonomy, mastery & purpose.

         Take a look at this wonderful animated talk on motivation:

          So, if this is the case, then why in the field of education, purportedly undergoing a radical shift from public to private in order to benefit from the ideals of “good business,” are we motivating educators with carrots?  Are we suggesting that educators are not (or should not be) creative, conceptual, critical thinking professionals with the capacity to innovate?


          My best guess is the system is made up of very real people and people are very concerned with their own families, their own survival, and micromanaging fears (fears that are exasperated & exploited in the current climate).  There is a long list of incentives that get people to follow through with/allow mandates that go against the very heart of education.  Here are a few, very real rationales for not stopping the machine (not even for a momentary “reboot”):  

“At least I’m working”  

“How can I effect change unless I’m in it?”

“Other people’s children”

“This too shall pass”

“It’s really not that bad, it’s about compromise & embracing change”

“It wasn’t working before, so we need to try something completely new”

“Frankly, they got me by the balls”

          When I think about all these very real challenges, I hear a lot of individuals feeling alone and isolated.  Even though there are groups all over the US (and the globe for that matter) that are advocating for education and fighting for the rights of those who are experiencing the worst consequences of the reform—my sense is that there is no real comprehensive coalition being built (and if I’ve missed one, please let me know!) – that at any given moment could galvanize every leader, every educator in the country to STOP working and say “No, we will not open school today under these circumstances! We are all going to take a day of rest to reflect upon what is going on and where we really want to go.”  Imagine that? Imagine the impact that might have, everybody refusing to open the school doors, together?

          What if there were such a possibility, in which there was enough unity around the simple idea that “we can no longer continue on with business as usual” because we are not only stomping out the lives and opportunities of the most disenfranchised in society but because we are also stomping out what we professionals value the most.  Imagine?