I’ve been plugging through Barack Obama’s recent remarks on education and finding tons of tidbits that are interesting times ten.
To start with, it’s great to hear our president talking about rewarding teachers differently and about the importance of 21st Century skills. Both are reforms that I believe in and write about all the time (see here and here).
But I’m bothered by one section of his speech. He wrote:
From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom…
America’s future depends on its teachers. And so today, I am calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication; if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure – join the teaching profession.
America needs you. We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country.
It’s not unlike the high-minded rhetoric that dozens of presidents have pulled out of the ol’ uh-oh toolkit during times of domestic trouble.
But who can blame ’em! Tapping into American pride never hurts when your trying to tackle social challlenges. We’re a nation of believers and when we feel like we’re losing ground to anyone, we’re generally willing to bear more weight in order to get ‘er done.
(Mental note: We really should thank the Puritans for that.)
There’s one problem, though: Education has gone through a painful transition in the past two decades, from a profession driven by social norms to one driven by market norms.
Social norms—-as Dan Ariely explains in his book Predictably Irrational—-are the “friendly requests that people make of one another.” In a world governed by social norms, people will do most anything without expectations. Social norms are built from our sense of service and our willingness to contribute to the communities that we belong to.
Sounds a lot like education, doesn’t it?
After all, teachers have given freely for generations. We’ve always been the very definition of sacrifice, working long hours for poor salaries because we know what we do matters. Our greatest rewards are toothless smiles from kids and the place of esteem that we hold in the towns where we work.
In my own career, these kinds of social rewards have meant everything to me. I’ve always wanted to be the teacher who worked in one building for 30 years, teaching generations of children and being celebrated by the community when I retired. I never expected to make millions and never really cared about cash simply because I cared about kids
Appealing to these kinds of social rewards seems to be a part of Barack’s plan for solving our nation’s teacher quailty problems. By reaching out and touching the core of Americans, he’s trying to attract the kinds of spirited young teachers that we’ll need to drive change in classrooms for generations.
The hitch is that schools don’t operate under social norms any more.
Instead, we’re operating in the world of market norms, which Ariely describes as “sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interests, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean…but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for—that’s just the way it is.”
In education, the transition to market norms has been particularly rocky.
Society—convinced that our schools are failing in every way—has begun to demand accountability from everyone involved in the teaching-learning transaction. Testing has replaced trust in most communities and criticism of schools has become far more common than any kind of celebration.
My first collision with market norms came during a presentation at our school by a district evaluation and research expert who had come to review our end of grade test results with our faculty. “From the looks of it,” he said, “Your sixth grade langage arts staff is decidedly average. Their students aren’t making the same gains as students in seventh or eighth grade. That would be an area of concern for me.”
Then, we met in the library for an all-staff debrief, looking again at our end of grade testing results. “What do you notice in our numbers?” the moderator of the session asked.
“Math teachers are carrying reading teachers,” table after table reported. “If it weren’t for our math teachers, our school wouldn’t be succeeding. We’ve got to get more out of our reading teachers.”
Ouch. So much for taking joy from the personal and social growth of my students!
Now don’t get me wrong: Holding schools—and individual teachers within schools—-accountable for their performance isn’t a bad thing. Taxpayers investing millions in a system of education have the right to set expectations for the organizations that they support.
But once you introduce market norms to any profession, it is unrealistic to expect pleas based on social norms to be successful. And once you introduce market norms, you’d better be prepared to compete as an employer.
Relying on warm and fuzzies ain’t going to staff schools in communities wracked by poverty. Relying on warm and fuzzies ain’t going to keep accomplished teachers from leaving the classroom as soon as they figure out just how impossible the job really is. Relying on warm and fuzzies ain’t going to keep teachers from pushing back on irresponsible assumptions about “performance” and “achievement.”
I’m not working for a cause anymore. I’m working for myself. And as such, I’m going to demand the kinds of support that I’ve lived without for far too long. It’s like my boy Dan says In the world of market norms, “you get what you pay for. That’s just the way it is.”
That’s the real legacy of our drive towards accountability. Education has become a business—-not a passion—-and that could be our nation’s greatest mistake.
Good luck with the beautiful speeches, Barack.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed for ya.
But I think the time for appealing to social norms is long gone. That card disappeared from the deck when we started beating schools over the head with market based demands.
And sadly, you just can’t have it both ways.