Often those in authority within an organization—frequently referred to as ‘the leadership’—use the thing they believe is valued by most as a way of resolving a complex problem. That is, they throw money at it! While it does cost money to solve problems—energy is often expended—this does not mean that everything can be solved with the offering of money. A recently announced U.S. government initiative clearly illustrates this common practice.
The U.S. government initiated The Race to the Top that essentially offers a bag of cash—$4.35 billion to be exact—to get the attention of those in authority of public education within each state. However, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, “the U.S. has been trying without much success to spend its way to education excellence for decades.” [It should be noted that although this amount is substantial, it is less than 1% of what is allotted for education nationally in a year.]
Seemingly the intent is to incite—actually to incentivize—people to focus on improving the educational outcomes of their school system. President Obama said, “We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform, and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant.” Pay for success: Sounds great!
I am sure the argument is that the allure of money it will get people to do something. After all, nothing is being done now! Of course the prospect of getting the money will likely cause some movement, but it isn’t that clean and simple.
The Devilish Details
Seemingly it is believed—erroneously I might add—that popular business practices are effective. Accordingly, The Race to the Top is fashioned after what leaders of business organizations often do—create competition, manage by results, incentivize and devise pay-for-performance schemes. However the popularity of these practices is not sufficient evidence to support their effectiveness. Yes they get people to do something, but getting movement is not quite the same as realizing lasting improvement. These tactics have never proved to be effective over the long run, so why the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) includes these as the levers for improvement is unclear.
When the context is competitive then nothing is more important than winning. Some might argue this is what we want from our education system, people who know how to win! Politely, no. We really need graduates who know how to learn and who find learning joyful. If these were realized, we might then have a society of people capable of progressing beyond what is currently known.
Managing by results means results rein supreme. Some might contend that knowing how to get results is what education is about! When getting results is what matters—good grades, best test scores—learning becomes the least of people’s concern. Hitting the numbers—by hook or by crook—is what becomes important.
Moreover, since competition is a zero-sum game winning equates to not losing. Therefore, with the confluence of competition and a results focus, what we really teach is results are all that matters—the process is irrelevant. What is (tacitly) learned is how to rig the system in one’s favor, or fudge the numbers so that the results show oneself to be the winner. [In this environment, might we see teaching to the test, fraud and cheating scandals in the future?]
Last but surely not least is merit pay, based on student test scores, to determine the compensation or continued employment of a teacher. The argument in support of this system is that it incentivizes (i.e. forces) teachers to ensure students do well. If a teacher’s job depends on it, then it will surely bring focus to what they do. Of course we want teachers to do their job well! But this merit pay arrangement changes their job. What this essentially does is cause the teacher to choose between facilitating learning and getting students to score well on tests It amounts to student learning versus teacher survival. Guess what will win out? The bottom line is that teachers become trainers and students become highly trained test takers—training is not education.
Merit pay sounds great but it doesn’t work as intended, and there is credible research to support this. Also, if it worked as well as its widespread use would indicate, then the vast majority of business organizations would exemplify the pinnacle of performance from top to bottom. But they don’t!
By looking to business for common problem solving practices government officials have disregarded the very things that would help: systems thinking, statistical thinking, theory of human development and learning theory—yes just like business leaders do. Instead, they’ve copied what they see in business, the widespread practice of reductionism and competitive context setting.
In summary, when those in authority focus on results and employ money through competitive schemes to solve complex human problems, it is a signal that they haven’t a clue of what to do.
A Critical Thinking Mind Might Help
Why not first use our mind before we deploy our money? We’ll continue using The Race to the Top to explain.
It seems reasonable to ask: Why is it necessary to incite action toward improvement among those with authority over public schools? More specifically, if those in charge of education need to be incentivized to improve the learning experience, then are they the right people to have in this authority position? If improvement is needed why haven’t they already initiated efforts to do so (why aren’t they already doing it)? Do they know that their system is not performing well? You may believe they do know but they haven’t the money so that is why the offering of money. But don’t they have the money to support doing what they are now doing? And if what they are doing isn’t producing quality, then why aren’t they using that same money to do something different that will? Improving quality does not require doing something in addition to what is being done it requires doing different things—and often times differently!
Might those in authority be impediments to improvement? Maybe they just don’t know what or how to improve? If this is the case, then should they be provided the opportunity to learn about quality and its’ improvement? Or should they be replaced with people who understand the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of quality?
What are the consequences if we ignore exploring these questions and simply offer money? What is the likelihood that it will be properly invested in support of fundamental improvement?
The educational system is not performing as desired and it appears consistent in this regard. It seems reasonable to conclude that the system is designed and managed to produce what it is delivering. What it produces are people who (for the most part) enter the system eager to learn and exit the system not knowing how to learn and not finding learning joyful.
What was the educational system designed to do? Long ago when knowledge had a shelf life of 50-years or more, teaching people to remember things—memorizing course content—was adequate for the task. However, with the shelf life of knowledge now in the single digits, having the ability to remember facts doesn’t quite cut it. Actually it never really did serve the development of people but its effect was hidden by the long shelf life of technology.
We must re-think and thus re-design the system, and not merely manipulate the parts in pursuit of better test scores. A focus on the parts—reductionism—will not result in an improved system! Rather it is the system itself that needs to be re-designed and transformed.
Throwing money at a problem, absent of understanding, no matter the amount is never a sound approach. If we were to use our mind before using our money, what could be done?