Student Well-Being Opinion

The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and Motivation Theory

By Phylis Hoffman — April 08, 2015 3 min read
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The Atlanta cheating scandal was a perfect storm of what happens when you try to reduce the complex job of teaching (and it get’s even more complex when you teach in schools that serve children living in extreme poverty) to a simple set of percentages tied to monetary bonuses. You get educators being led out of a courtroom in handcuffs indicted on federal racketeering charges and awaiting their sentences from prison cells. This isn’t to say that every teacher who received a monetary bonus is guilty of cheating but giving teachers bonuses because their students increased their test scores goes against modern motivational theory.

A lot has been written this past week about the cheating scandal in Atlanta so I am not going to rehash too much but share what I found then tell you something about motivational theory.

If you want to know the human side of the scandal read Corey Mitchell’s post The Atlanta Cheating Scandal: How Did We Get Here; or to find out why a great teacher in Atlanta cheated read the The New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv, “Wrong-Answer.” If you’re wondering what a lot of other people are wondering - does the punishment fit the crime? - you should read David Cohen’s post here on Ed Week or this article from The Fiscal Times, “The Biggest Outrage.”

The typical business model for improving performance is to reward improvement with money, a bonus. That’s what I thought until I read an interview with Dan Pink. Dan Pink is a former speechwriter for Al Gore and a person who has gone on to immerse himself in the study of motivational theory. He called this idea of more money for more production, carrots and sticks (the horse who pulled the most sticks got the most carrots). So Pink looked at motivational studies that have been done in all parts of the world in all types of industry. It turns out the carrot and stick model works, when the work being done requires very little cognitive skills. When the task requires more cognitive demands, offering bonuses for completing more work is actually counter productive. Pink’s studies found that people actually produced less when the work was very cognitively demanding (think computer programming code writers) and monetary rewards were offered. It turned out, what people really wanted was autonomy, mastery, and purpose over salary and bonuses.

In fairness to all my hard working teacher friends, he goes on to say, we need to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. When salary is a non-issue, people work for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

What would this theory look like if we applied it to education? Purpose, is the idea that what I am doing makes a difference in society- teachers are the most purpose-driven people I know. Autonomy would mean teachers would be in charge of determining the curriculum they teach, managing their day (the calendar, the bell schedule, so on), and forming the programs offered at their school ( a say in the budget, etc). We call these places teacher-powered schools. Mastery is the idea that our work gives us the opportunity to become masters at what we are doing through study, experiment, and enrichment opportunities. And I think it goes without saying, but I am going to say it, mastery for teachers would be professional development for where I am at and what I am interested in- not the opportunities the new teacher next door to me is getting.

I would like to see Dan Pink’s motivational theory active in education, and the sooner the better. Research on teacher-run schools and their effect to raise student achievement is just starting to trickle in but their autonomy, mastery, and purpose make sense to me.

I started writing this blog in my quest to help raise teacher autonomy in educational policy decisions. I know educators around the country empathize with Atlanta (we understood what drove them) but I hope we have learned from Atlanta as well. Tying pay raises and job evaluations to one yearly, standardized test makes no sense at all. We don’t give our students an A or an F because of one test. Why is it OK to do this to teachers and schools?

The opinions expressed in Teaching While Leading 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.