Teaching Opinion

Schools Need a Culture Shift

By Betty J. Sternberg — November 16, 2009 6 min read
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Consider this description of the work environment of California-based Meebo, one of the Web’s fastest-growing messaging companies, and then ask yourself if today’s classrooms can be described the same way:

“A great team, and tons of meaty problems to solve. … It’s open, collaborative. … We’re facing problems that are pretty unusual. … We take the smartest and most passionate team-oriented people we can find and put them in an environment where they can thrive. We value innovation, teamwork, and good clean fun. … We’re still a small company, so one person can make a big impact.”

I’ve spent 37 years in education, teaching preschool through graduate students, recently leading a school district as superintendent, and, not too long ago, heading a state agency as commissioner of education. This I know, from watching a multitude of classrooms, pre-K through high school, and from talking to teacher leaders who are in my graduate classes: The culture in most of our classrooms is diametrically opposite to the description of this thriving company.


Most student descriptions of a majority of their classes would read something like this:

“It’s drudgery. We sit alone at our desks and silently answer lots of questions that our teachers tell us look like the ones we will see on the state tests. We’re not interested in what we’re doing. We hurry up to finish first, and if we’re done before the rest of our classmates, we get to sit quietly and take out a book or do other work. We follow the rules and speak out only when called upon. We leave for a break only when the teacher tells us it’s time to do so, or when the buzzer signals the end of the class. To get a good grade, we do what the teacher wants us to do. Our sole focus is to do well on the state tests. Quiet, discipline, and following the rules are valued.”

How do we bridge this “culture gap”—the gap between the culture of our classrooms and that of our best work environments? How do we transform the culture of our classrooms to prepare students to enter the culture of thriving, cutting-edge business environments? Surely not in the current classroom milieu, fostered by an overreliance on narrow measures of achievement based on standardized tests. Such tests do not measure the skills and competencies needed to thrive in today’s world—teamwork, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. So it is no wonder that a much-respected private school in my state of Connecticut is running an advertisement to attract families that says, “Your child will develop into a person, not a test score.”

Despite the involvement of new people in Washington, we are grasping at old, limited ideology—forcing a particular prescription—to the detriment of the breadth, richness, and creativity we need.

One approach to improving education advanced in the federal government’s Race to the Top agenda is a teacher pay-for-performance system. It, too, no matter the intent, will end up being based on student test scores. Individual teacher evaluations and eventual compensation will be linked directly to student performance on standardized tests—a method that has little or no scientific backing and significant drawbacks. Consider the pitfalls of giving students tangible rewards to perform well—problems to which I can personally attest.

In 1972, when I began teaching as a mathematics resource specialist in San Jose, Calif., I was required to coordinate an individualized math program, kindergarten through grade 6, that included an elaborate system of rewards. The program was divided into specific objectives, and as each child mastered four of these, he or she was rewarded with a certificate of achievement. After mastering 16 objectives, the student received a small trophy. At each successive set of four objectives, students were awarded increasingly fancy certificates and trophies until they completed all the program objectives and received a trophy three feet high.

This system caused students to rush through their math in order to earn the rewards. When asked what they had learned, they would respond with the number of objectives they had finished, not with the content of the math they had learned. And what happened when these students went to junior high? They refused to do math. Parents begged the school system to extend the award system to the junior high level. They said that their children had “loved” math in elementary school, but wouldn’t do it in junior high without the awards. What had been a well-meaning attempt to motivate students undermined, in the long run, students’ motivation to learn.

This was a pay-for-performance system. It relied on external motivators, and in reality killed students’ intrinsic motivation. It also killed the joy of learning math, eliminating any pleasure the kids might have found in solving problems, by adhering to the misguided notion that to love math, children had to be lured with a tangible reward.

Years of research about “token economies” were borne out by this outcome. If those who chose the rewards program had only heeded the research findings, they could have predicted these dismal results.

Sadly, education leaders today are making the same mistake. In their quest to “race to the top,” they either do not know the preponderance of research findings about token economies and motivation, or they choose to ignore it. What motivates children and adults is doing something that they truly love simply for the sake of doing it, not because of an external reward. The major discoveries made by teams of great scientists have been done by individuals motivated by their desire to solve the meaty, unusual problems, not by people looking to get some award for doing so.

Can’t we learn from the worst of our business environments—from the mega-banks that regularly use the pay-for-performance model? They created people and institutions so motivated by external rewards that they lost sight completely of their moral compass. Do we really want to emulate that model? Do we want to pay our students to take Advanced Placement exams and score well on them? Or do we want youngsters to choose to take classes and do well in them because they are pursuing their passions and interests?

I have always believed in passionate teaching. Well before the No Child Left Behind Act, I believed that a reasonable amount of assessment was valuable. I oversaw the development and implementation of state assessments in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10 that measured, in authentic and meaningful ways, what students needed to know and were able to do. Regrettably, over my last years on the K-12 scene, I saw the No Child Left Behind law generate classroom cultures devoid of passion, limited by the narrow focus of what is tested in an obsessive effort to reach “adequate yearly progress.”

Despite the involvement of new people in Washington, we are grasping at old, limited ideology—forcing a particular prescription—to the detriment of the breadth, richness, and creativity we need in our curriculum, assessment, and classroom culture. Most public schools are moving further and further away from the kind of culture fostered at companies like Meebo. There are exceptions, of course, and not just in charter schools. Some individual teachers and schools in the traditional public school arena, as well as in magnets and charters, are succeeding wonderfully in bringing these essential qualities—and high test scores—to their students’ education.

We must expand and implement this culture for all our students. They all deserve to grow into extraordinary individuals, not just a record of test scores. If we don’t do this now—finally and with due support and speed—our nation will pay for it soon, and for a very long time.

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Schools Need a Culture Shift


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