Robert Caveney On What is Wrong with the School System

Across the political spectrum, almost everybody agrees that the school system is broken. Unfortunately, most of the blame gets passed onto the people who have the least ability to fix the problem: teachers. There may be a few bad apples, but by and large teachers are very bright individuals who are extremely knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. Why, then, does the school system have so many problems?

 believes that the problem is systemic. In his book, SCHOOLING for Readiness and Drive,  he argues that the problems can be solved using methods that have already been used by other systems. The problem is that the school system has failed to realize what education really is: a form of knowledge work.

Kids want to learn, but the system only succeeds in discouraging most of them.

The Interview

It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Robert.

Thank you Carter, for this opportunity.

So you’re the author of , which offers several suggestions for fixing the school system. If I understand you correctly, it’s your opinion that the school system uses a very outdated method, and that it should embrace more modern management strategies. Before we get into that, I’d like to hear what you think the school system is actually for.

The school system must have two aims: first, to year over year, get students ready for next year’s learning and secondly, release the natural drive to create and learn. I am agnostic about the various philosophies of what it means to become educated. Those decisions are made in a conversation over generations. Once it has been decided what students should learn, a system is required to assure that our children achieve these desired results.

The first priority, readiness to learn, is the highest priority because unready problems compound year over year when students aren’t ready. Giving an 8th grade algebra teacher students who aren’t ready dramatically increases the challenge of teaching and learning. It only gets worse, year over year, if we don’t assure readiness to learn.

The second priority, to release the natural Drive to learn, comes from some common sense and some science. It turns out students are the only people who can do the learning work. Science tells us that extrinsic motivation, rewards and punishment, while effective for production work, slows knowledge workers down. There is a wonderful book by Daniel H. Pink titled DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which shows the indisputable science that intrinsic motivation is what is required to accomplish learning.

These are not “nice-to-have” features of a system of schooling, these are “must-have” features of a school system.

If only intrinsic motivation is effective for learning (knowledge work), then clearly the school system must have a system for releasing the natural drive to learn. For all of these reasons, the two must-have features of a school system are processes to assure readiness and methods to release natural drive. These are not “nice-to-have” features of a system of schooling, these are “must-have” features of a school system.

I am so glad that you mentioned this aspect of motivation, which is something that I actually alluded to in the very first post on this site. The assumption that carrots and sticks can solve everything has been discredited using almost every method available to modern science, but it continues to be used in the wrong context by almost every socioeconomic system. One good example is the insistence that merit pay would improve the educational system.

Ah, merit pay. So glad you brought that up. It is amazing how well this has been proven to not work – for three hundred years. Following is text right from my book about the history of merit pay. It’s not pretty.

A HISTORY OF MERIT PAY

AROUND 1710, TEACHERS SALARIES TIED TO CHILDREN’S SCORES FAILS TO IMPROVE SCORES

I am not making this up. It didn’t work. But that hasn’t prevented several more efforts over the last 300 years.i

1890 ENGLAND, AFTER 30 YEARS, TEACHER MERIT-PAY REJECTED

“In 1890, after 30 years, the “overwhelming judgment” in the country was that the practice was “unsound policy,” and it was dropped. By 1904, reflecting a strong negative reaction to previous practice, the education code for the country embodied a substantially different approach to the education of children. The job of teachers was described as “assisting” children to learn, and the ministry handbook in 1905 called for “unlimited autonomy” for teachers.”ii

1986 HARVARD EDUCATIONAL REVIEW, V56 N1 P1-17 FEB 1986

The authors of this article use micro-economics to show that teaching is not an activity for which performance pay is useful.iii

2005 PAY-FOR-PERFORMANCE IN DENVER

“Denver’s Pay for Performance pilot was the most ambitious experiment in teacher compensation ever attempted. The verdict: test-based pay for performance doesn’t work.”, says Donald G. Gratz, who led the research team for the first half of the pilot.iv

NOVEMBER 4, 2009 TEXAS MERIT-PAY PILOT FAILED TO BOOST STUDENT
SCORES, STUDY SAYS

In the new study…we learn whether the pay incentives for teachers translated to any improvements in their students’ test scores. The answer, in a word, is no.