Education Opinion

The Meta-Work Trap: The Downside of a “Laser-Like Focus on Student Achievement”

By Justin Baeder — October 15, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How can educational leaders make the greatest difference for students? If you’re not the one who actually does the teaching, what can you do to ensure that good things happen in your school or district?

I’ve been thinking about this since I came across Larry Cuban’s incisive post “Can Superintendents Raise Test Scores?

I think the answer to his question is yes—sometimes—but it depends on the particular set of challenges that the superintendent faces. In other words, it depends on what’s wrong in the district and what needs to be done about it. And sometimes trying to raise test scores is the wrong goal.

Sometimes having a “laser-like focus on student achievement"—Google the phrase and you’ll see tons of examples—is not the best approach.

If your district has been inflating scores for years by monkeying with enrollment and student classification like they were doing in El Paso, raising scores further is the wrong goal.

If your district has high scores already, but is facing a major budget crisis and a lack of public confidence, raising test scores is the wrong goal.

If your district is crippled by incompetence in key positions, focusing on student achievement isn’t going to help.

Every school district in America faces a unique set of challenges, and the leader’s job is to be responsible for everything while maintaining a focus on a manageably small set of problems. When the big problems are under control and the leader’s competence is clear, the leader has a platform from which to share a compelling vision.

Being a superintendent is a huge job, but I think it starts with two basic responsibilities.

First, solve problems. No one cares where we’re going if the car’s on fire.

Second, set the vision and motivate your team. People only perform at high levels when the destination and the route are clear.

When people use the word “bureaucrats” to talk about education administrators, they are usually referring to people who do neither of these things, but instead focus on meta-work that is only marginally related to the core purpose of the organization, and is not particularly useful to anyone.

Why is solving problems and motivating staff toward a vision so important? What about strategic plans, five-year goals, data systems, departmental reorganizations, and all of the myriad other priorities superintendents are told to worry about?

The truth is, most of this doesn’t matter to front-line educators or students, because it doesn’t help them do their core work, and it doesn’t inspire them to do better.

Two-factor theory, pioneered by psychologist Frederick Herzberg, identifies both motivational and de-motivational factors in the workplace, and suggests that these two sets of factors operate somewhat independently of each other.

Demotivational factors—what Herzberg called “hygiene” factors—need to be dealt with swiftly and effectively. If buildings are falling into disrepair, if paychecks aren’t arriving on time, if the hiring process gets bogged down in HR—these are killers of motivation and efficacy. Effective superintendents recognize these problems and task their direct reports with ensuring that they are quickly handled.

Motivational factors are not merely the opposite of the demotivational factors. People aren’t fulfilled when they get a paycheck and work in a structurally sound building; such conditions are necessary but not sufficient. Motivational factors include achievement, recognition, intrinsically fulfilling work, and the opportunity to grow.

Two-factor theory leads me to the conclusion that having a “laser-like focus on student achievement” is not necessarily a good idea for superintendents. Why? Because superintendents do not actually teach students. Teachers should certainly have a laser-like focus on student achievement, and principals should take responsibility for such focus at the school level.

But when superintendents and other district administrators try to focus solely student learning, they inevitably start engaging in meta-work that prevents district staff from solving problems that need to be solved.

A classic scenario unfolds like this:
Superintendent: “We need to have a laser-like focus on student achievement.”

Senior staff: “Yes, so we need to have a robust progress-monitoring system in place.”

Slightly less senior staff: “We don’t have the data systems to do that kind of progress monitoring.”

Superintendent: “Then our top priority is getting a new data system online ASAP.”

The entire central office then gets to work planning, procuring, and implementing a new data system. Principals are informed, and teachers barely know anything is happening, but the entire district office stays busy for months. No problems facing teachers are solved, and no one is motivated to grow and achieve. The hygiene factors don’t change, and the motivational factors don’t change.

Need another example? Ask me some time about the 60+ page booklet of “teaching and learning standards” that I received in 2004 after thousands of person-hours of work at my district’s central office.

What’s missing from this type of pointless activity? Solving problems for front-line educators, and helping them grow and achieve as professionals. Most meta-work that happens in district offices doesn’t do this. The more “strategic” it is, the less likely it is to have any impact on teachers and students.

When a superintendent has a compelling vision for staff growth and achievement, and when distractions and problems have been bulldozed out of the way, teachers and administrators will rise to the challenge and have a laser-like focus on learning. And if focused, motivated professionals getting better at what they do won’t raise student achievement, what will?

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP