Their Levers Are Destined to Fail

How do you get educators to do things differently? That is the question anybody with an idea about how to improve any aspect of education must consider.  

Such a question derives from dubious assumptions. First, you have to believe that things need changing, an assumption that probably says more about you than about what’s happening in schools. Second, you have to believe your idea will actually work on a large scale, an assumption that reveals your hubris and something teachers who have been doing the hard work for at least a few years find unlikely.

Their suspicion means that teachers won’t try your idea on their own, so you must force them to. In order to force someone to do something they’d rather not do, you must offer rewards or threaten sanctions  Rewards usually cost money, and you didn’t get to be rich enough to force your ideas on others by giving that away. Punishments must be severe enough to compel action.

It’s no secret that the success of any rollout or implementation is more dependent on teacher buy-in than almost any other factor. When initiatives fail, it’s the reluctance or incompetence of the teachers asked to implement it that’s blamed, not the idea itself. And it doesn’t matter what the reform is. You could be trying to get your teachers to use the textbook you purchased, to stress learning goals to their students, or to develop and use performance scales. You might even be trying to help them. I’m in conversation with someone at the Department of Education who wants to focus on educator empowerment. We’re brainstorming ways to educate teachers on how they can protect their wellbeing and fight for better work cultures. But we face an uphill battle because no matter the initiative, recent history proves it’s hard to get teachers to change and even harder to get true buy-in. 

First, there is the issue of time. When are teachers going to get the training? When will they be given an opportunity to look over the materials? The U.S. requires its teachers spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation. That leaves very little time for everything else. Because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, any new idea will meet immediate resistance. 

Second, and more importantly, there’s the issue of motivation. Why should teachers do this new thing? To be as cynical as possible (since any new initiative will have to deal with cynical teachers who have been through this a time or two before), what’s in it for me? I’m offered the opportunity to take an online class, or receive some coaching, or use my PD hours the way I want to and the first thing I’m going to ask (if I’m being cynical) is why should I?

Because it’s not as if this new thing comes without costs. There will be a time commitment and a learning curve. It will take effort. If I’m working with others or receiving some coaching, there’s some risk. There’s usually additional work involved and I’ve already got plenty, thank you. And there’s no evidence that it will work. In fact, based on my considerable experience, the evidence suggests that it will fail and be replaced by something new within a couple of years.

So why do any of it? 

Enter the levers.

Reformers (and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, but just to describe people who are trying to change the way teachers do things) love levers.

Which says something about how they view teachers. As Peter Greene writes,

A lever is a tool that one uses to force movement. There’s nothing collaborative about a lever. And you don’t apply a lever from inside the area you want to affect– you stand outside the box and bear down. If something breaks and snaps loose, it will go flying away from you.

As a metaphor, levers leave a little something to be desired.

But questionable metaphors are not the only problem with levers. The real problem for reformers is that their levers are destined to fail. 

Their Favorite Levers

 

Teacher evaluation

The thinking, I suppose, went something like this: Our test scores suck, which means our teachers must suck. To improve both, we’ll get rid of the duds. In order to identify the dead weight and make this appear at least a little bit objective, we’ll have to rate them. You know, with checklists and numbers and other sorts of data-y things. We’ll make it complicated so it’s harder to question. Anyway, the ones with the lowest ratings will be shoved out the door. The others, seeing those teachers summarily dismissed, will fall into line. Bill Gates, the champion of stack ranking at Microsoft, led this effort to the tune of a half-billion (with a b) dollars. Gates assumed that a practice that worked (except it didn’t) in the sphere where he had the most familiarity would work elsewhere. His efforts failed. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why.  

Most teachers quickly figured out that they only needed a good enough evaluation to return next year and that the odds of that happening were very high. With a teacher shortage, they could take their chances and not sign up for extra work just to earn extra points on their evaluations. History has proven that’s almost always a safe bet. If there’s one enduring lesson from the Gates experiment, it’s that billionaires and state governments may bark, but principals who have to do the actual firing won’t bite. Even at the height of the teacher evaluation craze, very few teachers received the lowest possible rating and even fewer were fired. 

Reformers hoped that the fear of losing our jobs would make us easier to control. They hoped to provide administrators with the leverage they needed to force compliance so that if they wanted to implement any of the fine initiatives being fed to them by reformers, they’d be able to raise an eyebrow, point at their tablets, and get teachers to bend the knee. When that didn’t work, merit pay was trotted out. The thinking: If we can’t threaten them into compliance, let’s try bribery!  That didn’t work, either. Most of the bribes weren’t large enough, and they were attempting to bribe people who knowingly sacrificed the opportunity to make more money when they chose education in the first place. If we cared about 500 bucks that much, we wouldn’t be teachers.

Badges (or mini-credentials)

So if teacher evaluations and merit pay won’t work, what will? How can reformers and the administrators who’ve signed on to their reforms get teachers to attend training or choose their own professional development or attend a three-day workshop that they don’t really want to attend? The latest solution seems to be digital badges. 

Digital badges are mini-credentials that teachers can earn when they display competencies with new skills or acquire new knowledge. Proponents point to their personalized nature and gamification as reasons teachers find badges better than traditional professional development. When used this way, teachers may indeed find digital badges more motivating. Used as levers to move teachers to action, however, they suffer from the same problem as other methods.

Digital badges are essentially résumé builders. As such, they only appeal to ambitious social climbers who are always looking for the next rung on the ladder.  As levers to get teachers to change, they’ll work on very few and those who do chase them will soon be out of the classroom, on to bigger and brighter things. Teachers who are content to finish their careers in the classroom have no use for them. These types of Scooby Snacks only motivate the already motivated, who would show up for whatever you’re offering anyway if they think it will help them move closer to their next job.  

Extra pay

Just kidding. This isn’t a favorite lever. Normally, if you want somebody to do disagreeable work, you pay them. Some teachers would likely trade autonomy for money. But as the response to nationwide teacher shortages demonstrates, education reformers, most of whom are right of center and proud supporters of our capitalist system, suddenly forget how the free market works when it comes to education. Few of them suggest paying teachers more as a way to attract them to the field. Instead, they look for alternatives, be they Teach For America temps,  long-term subs, or computer programs. Although many want to model America’s schools after America’s businesses, they don’t want to use the lever nearly all businesses use.

Appeals to Professionalism (Guilt)

When all else fails, reformers and the administrators who do their bidding can call on an old friend, guilt. Of all the levers, this one is most effective, at least in the short-term. “Do what’s best for kids,” teachers are told, and what’s best for kids is almost always what people who don’t teach kids think is best for kids. You’ll be reminded that you’re a professional, with the unspoken implication that professionals would never shirk their responsibilities, one of which is constant improvement. You’ve heard all the lines. They’ve probably even worked on you. And no matter how many times we’ve been burned, some of us keep coming back.

It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and it’s a lever that ultimately fails because it never achieves genuine buy-in. Guilted into doing something, some teachers will do it, but they’ll be resentful and unenthusiastic, hardly the mindset those with the idea had in mind when they imagined their brainchild in an actual classroom. Other teachers will exercise their teacher’s veto: they’ll pledge to do the thing and then go back to their classrooms and do what they know works. Compliance, however achieved, is a poor substitute for buy-in.

 

Those Damn Cynics

The only lever left might be to get rid of the cynics so the levers face less resistance. But this is a fundamental attribution error. Cynics don’t become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against.

Cynics don't become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against. Click To Tweet

It’s a vicious cycle. Reformers hope for docile acquiescence but are instead faced with skepticism and obstinance. To move the doubters, they pull out their crowbars, none of which work. Teachers, convinced that the reformers’ ideas are bad since they needed to be jabbed by levers in order to even try them and because every previous initiative met the same resistance and inevitably failed, have their cynicism confirmed. They become even less likely to change. It does no good to get rid of the cynics because there aren’t enough idealists to replace them, and if you keep sticking levers into them, those idealists will be cynics soon enough.

The Lever That’s Not a Lever

The only lever that will work is the one no reformer wants to use. If you want me to try your new idea, then offer me more freedom and create something useful. Say to me, “We’d like you to try this. We think it’s pretty nifty, and we want to see if it works. We’re so high on this idea that we’re sure if you try it you’ll never go back to teaching how you did. But we’ll trust you to make that decision because we know you want what’s best for your students. We also know that if you try this new thing and it works, you’ll tell other teachers and they’ll start using it. Everybody will win.”

This is how Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, Prodigy, and countless other products ended up being used in thousands of classrooms. Teachers didn’t need to be coerced into using any of them. None of them needed levers. They spread because they worked. 

Of course, allowing teachers to choose is not really a lever at all. That’s trust and treating teachers like professionals. And if reformers did that, well, teachers might decide the ideas they’re being pitched suck. They might not try them at all. And there’s no possible way that teachers, the people who do this teaching thing for a living, can possibly know more about what works than the people who hold the levers.

 

Peter Greene wrote about the unfortunate use of levers as a metaphor for education policy here and like everything he writes, it’s on the nose and fun to read.

3 Replies to “Their Levers Are Destined to Fail”

  1. Amazingly accurate! I wish those above would take a step into the classroom that they have been out of (if they were ever in one) and try their latest and greatest new theory! I hate hearing I found this new thing we are doing at this conference that the district paid for. Yet, when teachers ask to go to a 3 day conference in the summer, there is no money! I am supposed to pay $400 for conference, plus airfare and hotel and they can go for 3 days and it’s all paid for and they are being paid a whole lot more than I am! I am tired! Thanks for the article to let me know it’s systemic not just my district

  2. Oh my goodness. You have taken a look into my situation. The hammer that is coming down on me is causing physical symptoms. The training has been spotty at best, but I am being bullied and targeted because I have not implemented it with “fidelity”. I am the dead weight they are looking to cull. I have less than 10 years until I can retire and I’m not sure I can make it.

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