The focus on accountability as a strategy for school reform turns on the belief that incentives can have a powerful effect on the behavior of educators. The idea is that holding school administrators and teachers accountable for their performance—through the promise of rewards or the threat of punishment—will motivate them to work harder and smarter.
This approach is rooted in behaviorism, a well-accepted theory of motivation. But for many decades, motivation researchers have shown that consequences do not produce desirable behavior unless certain conditions are met. The absence of such conditions in current accountability policies contributes to reform efforts’ failure to deliver the hoped-for improvements in student learning.
Consider as an example accountability policies focused on teachers. Increasingly, states and districts are beginning to reward teachers who perform well with bonuses or higher salaries. Punishment can come in the form of being put on probation, being subjected to public humiliation (e.g., publication of student test scores in the local newspaper), or even losing one’s job (although this threat so far is rarely carried through).
There are many reasons to debate the validity of extant teacher-assessment strategies. My complaint here, however, is not that the criteria are invalid (although these criticisms have merit), but that our attempts to influence behavior ignore vast and consistent research findings on how to motivate change in people’s behavior.
Self-determination theory is a good theoretical frame for considering the circumstances in which accountability will promote more effective teaching and, thus, student learning. This theory incorporates ideas from other motivation theories, and it has a strong research base in a variety of different contexts, including education, sports, religion, health, parenting, and environmental behavior.
According to self-determination theory, people naturally seek and work most effectively under three conditions: (1) They experience some sense of autonomy or control—they feel that they are engaged in behavior at least in part because they want to, not entirely because they have to; (2) they feel as though they belong and are respected in the social context in which they work; and (3) they feel competent to meet the demands of the job and expect their efforts to pay off. The promise of rewards and the threat of punishment do not motivate people to perform effectively, and sometimes undermine their performance when those approaches make them feel coerced, disrespected, or incompetent.
References to ‘getting rid of bad teachers’ in the public discourse threaten rather than motivate teachers.”
In each of these three areas, simple steps can be taken to improve how teacher-accountability measures play out:
Supporting autonomy. How can a policy that holds teachers accountable avoid undermining teachers’ sense of autonomy? A critical element of an effective policy is giving teachers an opportunity to participate in the development of the policy. Even if they disagree with the ultimate decision, being consulted (genuinely, not pro forma) will lead to greater acceptance than having a policy done “to” them. Although not sufficient, communication throughout policy deliberations and the decisionmaking process reduces feelings of victimization. And teachers’ sense of control can be further enhanced by providing some choice, even if within significant constraints. Most state policymakers and district officials prefer a uniform policy that allows comparisons across teachers, schools, and districts, but local choice should be allowed whenever possible.
Fostering respect. Can accountability policies be implemented without making teachers feel disrespected and devalued? The language used to discuss teacher accountability or evaluations matters. References to “getting rid of bad teachers” in the public discourse threaten rather than motivate teachers. Describing teacher assessment as a strategy for identifying teachers’ needs for improvement is less likely to alienate teachers and thus to motivate their productive efforts to improve their practices. Policies that create competition among teachers within a district or school, such as merit pay for a predetermined percentage of teachers, weaken the sense of community; more desirable than competition are teacher-accountability policies that promote collaboration and cohesion. Strong professional learning communities in schools are associated with better student outcomes in part because they create a sense of belonging and respect among teachers.
Feeling competent. There are two parts to promoting feelings of competence. The first part involves the expectation that efforts have some likelihood of achieving success, however success is defined in the accountability policy. Research on the effect of expectations as well as research based on self-determination theory finds that incentive systems motivate individuals to change their behavior only if they believe the goals are realistic and attainable.
To make sure teachers believe that success is achievable, an accountability policy needs to include efforts to provide the tools teachers need to be successful. Tools might come in the form of technology, a research-based curriculum that is linked to the standards their students are expected to achieve, support for the psychological and physical challenges that can interfere with students’ ability to benefit from even the best instruction, and meaningful opportunities for teachers to develop their skills.
We have seen what happens when accountability measures fail to provide these supports: Studies show that incentives do not lead to improved instruction and student learning unlessteachers have high expectations for their ability to influence learning. The negative effects of increased stress and lowered commitment to teaching found when expectations are low can outweigh any positive effects of the incentives.
The second part of feeling competent is the emotional experience of pride and mastery that comes with developing new skills and seeing improvement in students’ learning. Teachers’ intrinsic motivation is grossly underestimated in the public dialogue on school reform, especially related to teacher assessment.
Most teachers take great pleasure in a lesson that goes particularly well and in seeing students engaged and learning. Experiencing their own skills developing and seeing the effects of their more effective practices on student learning are powerful motivators for teachers. In contrast, when teachers do not experience improvement despite their increased efforts or changes in practice, they become discouraged and their expectations for success decline. Again, motivation theory and research point to the importance of teacher professional development as a core ingredient of a successful accountability policy.
Accountability is as important in education as it is in any field of work. But accountability will fail when it is not a piece of a larger set of policies that support teachers’ feelings of autonomy, belonging, and competence. The same argument can be made for school administrators and students—actually for anyone in any performance context. If we want to motivate educators to work harder and smarter, we need to consider the context in which accountability is introduced.
So far, we are learning these lessons through trial and error. Why pursue such a hit-or-miss strategy for developing accountability policies when we have decades of motivation theory and research to serve as a guide?
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Using Accountability to Promote Motivation, Not Undermine It