Me and the Legislature: A relationship fostered by Daugaard’s plan for education

by Mr. Sheehy

Recently the governor of South Dakota, Dennis Daugaard, publicized a plan he is proposing for reforming pieces of the education system. Some of the details are available at the Argus Leader’s website, but the three big basics go like this:

  • $5,000 bonuses each year to the top 20 percent of teachers in each district.
  • $3,500 bonus each year to secondary math and science teachers
  • No more tenure for teachers

Opinions obviously abound, including this one from Jim Shaw, the former mayor of Rapid City who supports the plan and has apparently been waiting for something like it to be introduced:

Facts show we can do a much better job. The U.S. spends twice as much per student compared to most other countries, but our student achievement rankings are near the bottom.

Daugaard’s statistics point out that student enrollment in South Dakota declined by almost 50,000 between 1971 and 2011, but the number of teachers increased by 869 and other school staff by 3,569.

Daugaard also says spending per student in the state has more than doubled during that time, but test scores in South Dakota have remained flat.

Daugaard articulated what many of us have long believed: Simply throwing more money into education without increased accountability is not the answer.

Personally I was not big on the plan, though not due to specific items but due to its overall assumption about what motivates human beings (and teachers in particular). In reading the newspaper’s description of Daugaard’s plan, I flashed back to the research into human motivation that I read about in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. In Drive, Pink presents a damning case to the carrot and stick methods of reward and punishment that we so often fall back on, at least in the context of creative and problem-solving pursuits.

In one sense, the observation is obvious. We are not motivated by money nearly to the extent that we believe. Would Gov. Daugaard have come up with a way of solving the budget shortfall without making cuts if we’d simply offered him monetary incentive? Of course not. Similarly, teachers are not going to be motivated to teach better because they might get a bonus. In fact, any teachers who might be motivated by such a bonus would likely be the ones on the very opposite end of the spectrum–in threat of receiving the stick of firing.

A decent salary makes me feel valued and helps me decide whether I can enter the profession. Today, however, I am trying to do my best for my students, but I hadn’t thought about my paycheck until I picked up the newspaper and read about this issue. What that means is that my paycheck is not a motivating factor. A decent salary makes it so I can stop thinking about my salary and focus entirely upon why I am here–teaching students.

There are specific details in the governor’s plan that a person could discuss, but it is the overall approach that alarms me, and I hope as the legislature moves forward to evaluate it, they will consider the wisdom of the underlying principal of attempting to motivate a workforce with carrots and sticks.

This is the message that I sent to my state representatives, whom I chose to contact through email. The responses I received were prompt and thoughtful. The legislative representatives and senators recognized my concern, occasionally sharing it, but also recognized a need to do something, and they were glad that the governor came forward with a concrete idea.

In a further response to a state senator, I chose to highlight a secondary area of concern I have with the plan–its potential effect on the culture of the faculty.

The nature of our education system’s given task is team-driven. As teachers, none of our students are ours alone. We are measured as a school and held accountable as a school. At the high school level I am one teacher of six a student likely has at a given time, and there is a real chance at my school that a student could have as many as 30 different teachers during high school. If that student performs well in my classroom, that is great, but the reality is that I am about 1/30th of his classroom experience here. I am part of a team of teachers working to impact that student’s learning; there is no way to pretend I am more significant than that.

In this way, Governor Daugaard’s plan concerns me in its need to rank teachers–an action that strips away the emphasis on team and clearly identifies who is most valuable and who is not. I have heard some folks express concerns that the plan could stifle collaboration–that teachers will be less likely to share good ideas because those ideas are what might make them part of the top 20%. I suppose this could be true, but honestly, I doubt it would be the case in more than a few rare instances. What seems more likely is that teachers will move through their days and interact with colleagues with the aura of competition and measurement hovering over them, and that kind of unwitting obsession definitely undercuts the team-identity. How can a person focus on students when they’re focusing on themselves?

  • “This new hire is pretty sharp. Will she bump me out of the 20%?”
  • “The principal popped his head in the door. Was that activity good enough to keep me in the 20%?”
  • “I got an advanced class–good. Perhaps then my students’ scores will put me in the top 20%.”
  • “She’s been in the top 20% for two years, but we all know she’s not that good a teacher.”
  • “I am just not a top 20%, but I’m not a bottom 20% either, so what does it matter?”

If a basketball team had only five players, would the coach rank them all every week, rewarding only the top two players with special recognition and incentive? How would that motivate the other three? How would that help the team? Does it matter whether I’m the second or third best player on the team, or does it matter whether I do whatever it takes to help the team win the game?

Through my eight years of teaching I will confidently affirm one thing above all others: teaching is quite difficult. A plan that measures and ranks teachers can easily erode confidence that all teachers need–even those who would rank only in the top 40% of teachers rather than the top 20%. I can see such a plan agitating and magnifying teachers’ insecurities and defensive responses to correction and critique, because it places the teachers in a position where they need to think of themselves and their status. I can see it undercutting the true state of our pursuit: a team working to propel the learning of a large group of young people.

Do I have any constructive alternatives? This is the challenge one representative tossed at me, and at this moment I have to admit I don’t have any direct substitutions to mention. I do not recognize some easy tweak to the governor’s proposal that would make it palatable, because it is the underlying approach of the plan that concerns me, and any ideas I would have would admittedly begin by scrapping the plan and re-evaluating the original goal: how can we motivate teachers to improve? It seems to me that much more motivational would be a plan that works to empower teachers to improve themselves and that gives them the time and opportunity to master their profession. I could talk for an hour about a plan like that . . .

And that might be exactly where people like me are failing. The dominant theme I detected in my state legislature’s responses was this: “We can see there needs to be fixing, and no one has any better idea, so this is what we’re going to do.” When the governor presented his plan, I jumped up and wrote to my state legislature to say I did not like it. But before he presented that plan, I never said boo to anyone about ideas I might have to improve our lot.

Duty is a word we don’t use much anymore in our culture outside of Marine commercials, but that does not eliminate it. I think I have a duty as a teacher and citizen to participate more fully in the legislative process; a duty to be not only protective and reactive to legislation that is introduced, but pro-active and constructive about legislation and policies that do not exist yet.

Later this week I think I’ll jot one idea I have, something that fits my qualifications as empowering teachers to improve and giving them time to master their profession. Perhaps it won’t help anything or matter, but it’s better than just complaining.